In a bid to ensure speedy justice and discourage delaying tactics adopted by accused in procuring a lengthy stay on trial, particularly in corruption and criminal cases, the Supreme Court ruled on Wednesday that a stay on proceedings must not exceed six months.
The court proceedings
The SC ruled that lower courts could proceed after a six-month period, preventing accused of dragging on the trial. The order should reduce the probability of the maxim “justice delayed is justice denied” becoming the norm and aiding the accused in avoiding just desserts in a court of law. Prolonged trials can result in witnesses turning hostile or even dying and evidence being diluted — developments that frustrate victims and law enforcement agencies.
A bench of Justices Adarsh K Goel, R F Nariman, and Navin Sinha said it was in the interest of society to ensure that cases under the Prevention of Corruption Act are tried expeditiously as the cancer of corruption has eaten into vital organs of the state.
“It is well accepted that delay in a criminal trial, particularly in the PC Act cases, has a deleterious effect on the administration of justice in which the society has a vital interest. Delay in trial affects the faith in rule of law and efficacy of the legal system. It affects social welfare and development. Even in civil or tax cases, it has been laid down that power to grant stay has to be exercised with restraint. A mere prima facie case is not enough. The party seeking the stay must be put in terms and the stay should not be incentive to delay. The order granting a stay must show an application of mind. The power to grant a stay is coupled with accountability,” the bench said.
It said the wisdom of legislature and the object of final and expeditious disposal of a criminal proceeding cannot be ignored by courts. Higher courts, while passing orders on the stay of trial, have to balance freedom of an individual on the one hand and security of society on the other.
“Only in case of patent illegality or want of jurisdiction, the high court may exercise its jurisdiction. The acknowledged experience is that where the challenge to an order framing charge is entertained, the matter remains pending for a long time which defeats the interest of justice,” it said.
“In an attempt to remedy this situation, we consider it appropriate to direct that in all pending cases where stay against proceedings of a civil or criminal trial is operating, the same will come to an end on expiry of six months from today unless in an exceptional case, by a speaking order, such stay is extended,” the court said.
The apex court said that in cases where a stay is granted in future, the same will end on the expiry of six months from the date of such an order unless a similar extension is granted by a speaking order. “The speaking order must show that the case was of such exceptional nature that continuing the stay was more important than having the trial finalized,” the court said.
The court passed the order while deciding whether an HC can stay trial proceedings on a petition filed by an accused at the stage of framing of charges under the PC Act. It said the HC has jurisdiction to consider the challenge against an order framing charges and also to grant a stay.
A petition challenging framing of charges should be decided in 2-3 months if it is accepted. “If a stay is granted, it should not normally be unconditional or of indefinite duration.”