Criminal trial, which drags on for a long time, is worse than the punishment

“Prisons are like concentration camps, so many go in and never come out.” — Lisa Bonet

I recently visited Tihar Jail along with some of my friends through the Legal Aid Services of our college. Apart from being exciting, the trip had the objective of giving us, upcoming lawyers, who would form an essential part of the Legal Aid Services all over Delhi as professionals, a sneak preview of the big task that lies ahead. We were to visit Jail No.3, which is basically a jail for undertrials. Before entering the main area, one has to undergo a lot of checking for security and nothing, except a notebook and pen, is allowed inside.

The first thing I saw was that the jail area is very neat and well maintained. The undertrials are generally kept together, away from the convicted prisoners and given all basic necessities. But is that enough? I had a chance to interact with some undertrials (only with those involved in cases of theft, fraud, etc. We were not allowed to meet persons undergoing trial for murder, rape or dacoity) and some of their stories gave me a true insight into our justice system and its lacunas.

Sunil Kumar (name changed), 23, came from Bihar to Delhi in the hope of a better future, leaving behind his pregnant wife. Little did he know that the first place he would visit in Delhi was the prison and there would be nowhere else to go. The only mistake Sunil did was to hitch a lift in a car carrying some stolen goods and when police apprehended the man in the car, Sunil was also taken away without even being heard. That was five months ago and Sunil has been in Jail No. 3 since then. He has been assigned a government lawyer to argue his case and has also been granted bail. But with a surety amount as high as Rs. 20,000, a lawyer who hasn’t talked to him even once and with no one in his family having information that he is in jail, Sunil’s chances of getting out on bail are bleak.

Ram Singh (name changed), a father of five girls, is another victim of circumstances and then of police and our criminal justice system. He was at the wrong place at the wrong time. He was caught in the crossfire of a fight between his brother and cousin (who are also in jail) and was never given a chance to explain. He has been in jail for six months and his trial is being dragged on allegedly by the lawyer appointed for him and by the vicious law and justice system.

A criminal trial which drags on for unreasonably long time keeps the accused in constant fear and psychological torture. This is worse than the punishment itself. Section 309 (1) of the Code of Criminal Procedure enjoins on courts to have speedy trial and to quickly dispose of cases. “In every inquiry or trial, the proceedings shall be held as expeditiously as possible and in particular, when the examination of witnesses has once begun, the same shall be continued day to day until all the witness in attendance have been examined.” After the 2008 Amendment, the following proviso has also been inserted in Section 309(2), after the third proviso and before explanation 1, namely “Provided also that-

(a) No adjournment shall be granted at the request of a party except where the circumstances are beyond the control of the party.

(b) The fact that the pleader of a party is engaged in another court shall not be a ground for adjournment.

In the case of Hussainara Khatoon (IV) vs. State of Bihar (1980) 1 SCC 96, the Supreme Court considered the problem in all its seriousness and declared that speedy trial is an essential ingredient of a ‘reasonable, fair and just’ procedure guaranteed by Article 21 and that it is the constitutional obligation of the state to device such a procedure as would ensure speedy trial. Thus, the rights of the accused have been recognised in the books of law but the real problem is in implementing them in practice.

The fact that out of the total 1938 inmates of Jail No. 3, the court-produced are only 183 — a small percentage of 9.44. This speaks volumes of the miserable condition of those numerous undertrials, most of whom are innocent victims of circumstances, police and the justice system. These people are mostly from the unlettered labourer class, who came to the big city to earn a livelihood.

I read this sentence on a wall in the jail — “after every dark cloud of crime, there is a silver lining of reform in Tihar.” What an irony of a quote when the jail keeps on filling itself with many innocent undertrials.

(The writer is a second year LLB at the Faculty of Law, Delhi University. Email: surpreet.0106@gmail.com)

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