By fixing a deadline of one year from the date of framing of charges for the completion of trial involving members of Parliament and Legislative Assemblies, the Supreme Court has once again intervened effectively to give some credibility to the idea of cleansing the polity of criminalisation. Last year, it gave a jolt to the political class by striking down a provision that protected sitting legislators from immediate disqualification on conviction. It has now sought to ensure that repeated adjournments and dilatory tactics do not indefinitely protect lawmakers from conviction and disqualification. The interim order — on a petition by a voluntary organisation — making the framing of charges as the point at which the clock begins to tick is based on a Law Commission recommendation that the filing of charge sheet could not be the appropriate stage for disqualification of candidates from contesting. The Court has asked trial courts to wrap up trials involving legislators within a year; and if they are unable to do so, they need to explain the delay to the Chief Justice of the High Court. When the Supreme Court held in 1979, and reiterated in 1986, that speedy trial is a fundamental right under Article 21 of the Constitution, what it had in mind was the plight of hundreds of poor prisoners languishing in jails across the country without being brought to trial for years. The languid criminal justice system, on the other hand, has worked to the advantage of members of the political class who occasionally find themselves facing prosecution on corruption and other charges.
Many political leaders and functionaries have managed to prolong for years an inherently supine trial mechanism, enjoying in the meantime repeated electoral victories and comfortable tenures in the legislatures of the States and in Parliament. A significant number among the law-making community, including leaders of political parties, manage to get trial proceedings stayed by superior courts or postponed by means of interminable interlocutory petitions. The Criminal Procedure Code does not prescribe a time limit for winding up a trial, but Section 309 makes it clear that once examination of witnesses begins, it shall proceed on a day-to-day basis until all witnesses are examined. This provision is rarely adhered to for various reasons. It is no easy task for the lower judiciary as MPs and MLAs are influential litigants, engaging the services of a battery of advocates who spare no effort and leave no procedural aspect unquestioned before allowing the trial to commence. The latest order helps address this problem by empowering the trial court to refuse routine adjournments.