Supreme Court 7 Judges: Courts Cannot Time-Bound Criminal Trial

The Judgment of the Supreme Court in P. Ramachandra Rao vs the State Of Karnataka  is a crucial case. The judgement, in this case, was passed by a seven-member Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court. 

This case deals with the ‘Right to Speedy Trial’ and other issues that stem from it. Brief facts about the case are as follows.

The appellants in this case were facing corruption charges under the provisions of Prevention of Corruption Act. The Special Court acquitted the appellants because of failure of commencement of trial and observed that the trial did not commence even when the charges were framed two years ago. 

The respondents moved the High Court, and all the appeals were allowed. It is pertinent to mention here that the appeals were allowed without a notice being issued to the accused.

An appeal was filed before the Supreme Court where a three-Judge bench held that even though it was held in A.R Antulay case that it was not advisable to prescribe an outer limit to the conclusion of a criminal trial, in the judgements( a registered society vs.Uoi, Common Cause vs UOI, Raj Deo Sharma(1) vs the State of Bihar and Raj Deo Sharma(2) vs the State of Bihar) relied on by the respondent state an outer limit was prescribed. The Court opined that a seven Judge Constitution Bench should take up the matter.

Issue Before the Constitution Bench

The issue before the Supreme Court was r ‘Whether A.R Antulay case still holds the field and if that is not the case then will guidelines mentioned in judgements (a registered society vs.Uoi, Common Cause vs UOI, Raj Deo Sharma(1) vs the State of Bihar and Raj Deo Sharma(2) vs the State of Bihar) should be upheld.

Should Courts Prescribe a Time Limit for the conclusion of Criminal Trial?

Case Analysis by the Supreme Court

A 7 Judges Bench comprising Hon’ble Chief Justice S.P Bharucha, Justice Syed Shah Mohammed Quadri, Justice R.C Lahoti, Justice Santosh Hegde, Justice Doraiswami Raju, Justice Ruma Pal and Justice Arijit Pasayat heard the matter.

The Court opined that the guidelines mentioned in the A.R Antulay cases are illustrative and not exhaustive, and a bar cannot be placed upon the time of a criminal trial. It was the opinion of the Court that even though the right to a speedy trial is covered under the principles of Article 21, it should be left to the adjudicating authority to decide if a trial should be terminated if the rights of the accused are infringed.

It was also observed that the bar of limitation is there in place to provide a solution, but such measures might cause more harm than good. “It might lead to scuttling a trial without adjudication, stultifying access to justice and giving easy exit from the portals of Justice”. The Court held that such measures could not be termed as viable solutions.

Further, the Court observed that if a limitation period is prescribed as to the time period of a trial, the trial court will have to terminate proceedings against the accused whose case has been going for a time that is above the limitation period, and the undertrials will go scot-free. If such a decision is passed, then it cannot be considered as a judicial directive but as legislation which can only be passed by the government and not by a court.

The Supreme Court stated that the judiciary could interpret the law, lay down principles, and exhibit guidelines. Still, they cannot entrench upon the field of legislation that is supposed to be dealt with by the legislature.

The Court opined that it is not at all feasible to prescribe an outer limit for the conclusion of a criminal trial as it might lead to unpredictable results. The Court mentioned that the time periods mentioned in registered society vs.Uoi, Common Cause vs UOI Raj Deo Sharma(1) vs the State of Bihar and Raj Deo Sharma(2) vs the State of Bihar could be only referred to as reminders can the judges who are hearing the cases should use their own judicial acumen to determine if the length of the trial is so delayed that it can be treated as oppressive or unwarranted.

The Decision of the Supreme Court:-

The Court held that the “ court could not have prescribed periods of limitation beyond which the trail of a criminal case or a criminal proceeding cannot continue and must be mandatorily be closed followed by an order acquitting or discharging the accused.”

The Court also clarified that the mandate in the A.R Antulay case still holds and is indeed correct. It was also mentioned that the guidelines provided in the A.R Antulay case were not be operated as a straight jacket formula, and its applicability should depend on facts and situations of each case.

Further, the Court stated that criminal courts should make use of powers vested in them by section 309, 311 and 258 to effectuate the right of the accused to a speedy trial. The appeals, in this case, were allowed, and the Court observed that the High Court should not have condoned the delay and it should not have allowed the appeals without notifying the accused.

The High Court was directed to hear the matter afresh, after giving due notice to the accused.

Case Details:-

Title: P. Ramchandra Rao vs State of Karnataka

Case No. Criminal Appeal 536 of 2002

Date of Judgment:- 16.04.2002 

Quorum :- Hon’ble Chief Justice S.P Bharucha, Hon’ble Justice Syed Shah Mohammed Quadri, Hon’ble Justice R.C Lahoti, Hon’ble  Justice Santosh Hegde, Hon’ble Justice Doraiswami Raju, Hon’ble Justice Ruma Pal and Hon’ble Justice Arijit Pasayat

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