Justice can't suffer in pursuit of speedy disposal: SC

Justice can't suffer in pursuit of speedy disposal: SC

The cause of justice must never be "sacrificed" or allowed to "suffer" in pursuit of expeditious disposal of cases, the Supreme Court has said while setting aside the conviction and death penalty awarded to an accused in a case of rape and murder of a minor girl after two-week trial proceedings.

Expeditious disposal is undoubtedly required in criminal matters, the top court said but cautioned that attempts to expedite the process should not be at the expense of the basic elements of fairness and opportunity to the accused.

A bench headed by Justice U U Lalit observed that fast-tracking of the disposal process must never ever result in burying the cause of justice.

The bench, also comprising justices Indu Malhotra and Krishna Murari, said this while setting aside the verdicts of the Madhya Pradesh High Court and a trial court which awarded death penalty to the accused in a 2013 case after convicting him for the various offences including that of rape, unnatural offence and murder of a nine-year-old girl.

In its verdict pronounced on Wednesday, the bench also laid down norms that in all cases, where there is a possibility of life sentence or death sentence, only those advocates having a minimum of 10-year practice at the Bar be considered for being appointed as amicus curiae (to assist the court in a matter) or through legal services to represent an accused.

The top court noted in its verdict that the accused was arrested on February 4, 2013 and charge sheet was filed against him within a few days, on February 13.

It also noted that trial court had framed charges against him on February 19, 2013 and the verdict awarding him death penalty was pronounced within days, on March 4.

The high court had on June 27, 2013 affirmed the view taken by the trial court and upheld the death sentence.

"Expeditious disposal is undoubtedly required in criminal matters and that would naturally be part of guarantee of fair trial. However, the attempts to expedite the process should not be at the expense of the basic elements of fairness and the opportunity to the accused, on which postulates, the entire criminal administration of justice is founded," the bench said.

"In the pursuit for expeditious disposal, the cause of justice must never be allowed to suffer or be sacrificed. What is paramount is the cause of justice and keeping the basic ingredients which secure that as a core idea and ideal, the process may be expedited, but fast-tracking of the process must never ever result in burying the cause of justice," it said.

The apex court also said that on February 18, an advocate was appointed by legal aid services authority to represent the accused before the trial court but he did not appear on the next day when the case was taken up.

It said that on February 19, another lawyer was appointed through the legal aid services to represent the accused and charges was framed against him on that day itself.

"In the present case, the amicus curiae, was appointed on February 19, 2013 and on the same date, the counsel was called upon to defend the accused at the stage of framing of charges. One can say with certainty that the amicus curiae did not have sufficient time to go through even the basic documents nor the advantage of any discussion or interaction with the accused, and time to reflect over the matter," the bench said.

The bench noted the submissions of senior advocate Siddharth Luthra, who appeared before it for the accused on behalf of the Supreme Court Legal Services Authority, and said there was "no fairness at all" in the manner in which trial was conducted in the case.

"The approach adopted by the trial court, in our view, may have expedited the conduct of trial, but did not further the cause of justice," the bench said.

"All that we can say by way of caution is that in matters where death sentence could be one of the alternative punishments, the courts must be completely vigilant and see that full opportunity at every stage is afforded to the accused," the top court said.

While setting aside the verdicts passed by the trial court and the high court, the bench directed the lower court to consider the matter afresh without being influenced by any observations made by the top court.

Laying down norms in cases having life or death sentence, the bench said, "In all matters dealt with by the high court concerning confirmation of death sentence, senior advocates of the court must first be considered to be appointed as amicus curiae."

"Whenever any counsel is appointed as amicus curiae, some reasonable time may be provided to enable the counsel to prepare the matter. There cannot be any hard and fast rule in that behalf. However, a minimum of seven days time may normally be considered to be appropriate and adequate," it said.

It also said that a counsel, who is appointed as amicus curiae, be granted time to have meetings and discussion with the accused.