India: Supreme Court Reiterates The Need For Speedy Justice: Limits The Validity Of Stay Of Proceedings In Civil And Criminal Trials To 6 Months

By a judgment delivered on 28 March 2018 in Asian Resurfacing of Road Agency Private Limited & Anr v Central Bureau of Investigation1, a three Judge bench of the Hon'ble Supreme Court comprising of Hon'ble Mr Justice R F Nariman, Hon'ble Mr Justice AK Goel and Hon'ble Mr Justice Navin Sinha has restricted the validity of stay in both criminal as well as civil trials to a period of 6 (six) months. The Supreme Court directed that the stay shall automatically expire after such period and can only be extended by a speaking order. Further, such order for extension must only be granted in exceptional circumstances wherein the continuation of stay order is warranted more than expeditious final disposal of the trial.

BACKGROUND

Municipal Corporation of Delhi ("MCD") filed a First Information Report ("FIR") with the Central Bureau of Investigation ("CBI") under Section 120B read with Sections 420, 467, 468, 471 and 477A of Indian Penal Code ("IPC") and Section 13(2) read with Section 13(1)(d) of the Prevention of Corruption Act, 1988 ("PC Act") against Asian Resurfacing and certain employees of MCD. After investigation, a charge sheet was filed against the appellant and certain employees of MCD. The Trial Court held that a prima facie case was made out against the appellants and directed framing of charges against the appellants. Thereafter, the appellants filed a revision petition against the order framing charges by the Trial Court. The revision petition was later converted into a criminal writ petition.

Writ Petition before the Delhi High Court

The Ld. Single Judge of the Delhi High Court, considering the provisions of Section 19(3)(c) of the PC Act and after considering the legal position, held that no revision against the order of framing charge would lie. Further, a petition under Section 482 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973 ("Cr. Pc.") would also not be maintainable. The Ld. Single Judge ruled that no writ petition under Article 227 of the Constitution of India shall lie against any order for framing of charges. However, due to a difference in the views of two Division Benches of the High Court on the maintainability of a petition under Article 226/227 of the Constitution, the matter was referred to a larger bench.

Decision by a three judge bench of the Delhi High Court

The three judge bench of the High Court after examining various judicial precedents held that an order for framing of charges under the PC Act is an interlocutory order and therefore no revision petition was maintainable against such an order in view of the bar stipulated in Section 19(1)(c) of the PC Act. However, a petition under Section 482 of the Cr. Pc. and a writ petition under Article 227 of the Constitution of India would be maintainable. The Division Bench further held that even if a petition under Section 482 of Cr. Pc. or a writ petition under Article 227 of the Constitution of India is maintainable, under no circumstances an order of stay should be passed in view of the prohibition contained in Section 19(3) (c) of the PC Act.

Decision of the Supreme Court

I. Challenge to Order of framing of Charge

The Supreme Court held that order framing of charge is not a purely interlocutory order and can in any given situation be challenged under Section 397 (2) of Cr.Pc. or Section 482 of Cr.Pc. or Article 227 of the Constitution of India but the power of the High Court to interfere with an order framing charge and to grant stay of trial is to be exercised only in exceptional situations. The Supreme Court placed reliance on the decision in Madhu Limaye v. State of Maharashtra, (1977) 4 SCC 551, which stated that while the legislature intended to bar the revisional jurisdiction against an interlocutory order by way of Section 397(2) of Cr.PC., there was no bar on the inherent powers of the High Court vide any other provision. In such a scenario, it could not mean that limitation on exercise of revisional power was to be completely set at naught.

The Supreme Court further noted that it was not permissible to say that any order which is not a final order must be construed to be an interlocutory order. It relied on the decision in S. Kuppuswami Rao v. the King, (1947) 2 SCR 685 and Mohanlal Maganlal Thacker v. State of Gujarat, (1968) 2 SCR 685, which stated that the finality of an order should not be judged by co-relating it with controversy in question. If such a meaning was prescribed to interlocutory orders, it would render the revisional powers of the High Courts under Section 397(1) of Cr.PC. inoperative and only those orders which are not appealable under Chapter XXIX of Cr.PC. would be revisable.  Therefore, a harmonious construction must be adopted and the bar under Section 397(2) of Cr.PC. shall not operate on such intermediate orders which are neither final orders, nor interlocutory orders. 

The Supreme Court also placed reliance on the decision in Kartar Singh v. State of Punjab, (1994) 3 SCC 569 which stated that no stay could be granted in cases under the PC Act in view of bar contained in Section 19(3)(c) of the PC Act. It was stated that a conjoint reading of sub-clauses (b) and (c) of Section 19(3) of the PC Act makes it clear that a stay of proceedings could be granted only if there is an error, omission or irregularity in the sanction granted and that error, omission or irregularity has resulted in a failure of justice. However, in the same case it was stated that it cannot be said that the High Courts do not have the power under Article 226 of the Constitution to entertain any application that it may deem fit.

Hon'ble Justice RF Nariman in his concurring opinion further stated that inherent powers of the Court were provided by the Constitution and not by the Cr.PC. Therefore, the High Courts being duty bound to protect the fundamental rights of the citizens under Article 226 of the Constitution would have the jurisdiction to entertain petitions under Section 482 of Cr.PC. 

Thus, the Supreme Court noted that even though various judicial precedents have showcased various conflicting observations, the decision of the Courts in Madhu Limaye Case still holds good. An order for framing charges may not be held to be purely an interlocutory order and can be interfered with under Sections 397(2) or 482 of the Cr.PC. or Article 227 of the Constitution in exceptional circumstances. Hon'ble Justice RF Nariman in his concurring opinion further stated that a judgement must be read as a whole and any conflict arising out of it must be reconciled harmoniously in accordance with earlier decisions of the same bench strength.

II. Guidelines for dealing with cases impugning orders for framing of charges

The Supreme Court noted that the delay in criminal trials, particularly trials under the PC Act have a deleterious effect on the administration of justice and therefore a mere prima facie case against the grant of stay shall not be enough. The Court relied upon the decision in Girish Kumar Suneja v. Central Bureau of Investigation, (2017) 14 SCC 809 which stated that a revisional court shall not ordinarily call for the record of proceedings, leading to an indirect stay on proceedings before the CBI Judge.

Thus, the Supreme Court stated that wherever a stay is granted, the orders must showcase the exceptional circumstances which warrant such stay and shall not prejudice the interest of a speedy trial. Ever after the grant of such stay, the courts must make best efforts to ensure that proceedings are concluded within two to three months and not adjourned by taking up the matter on a day to day basis. However, where the matter remains pending for a long period of time, the order for stay shall stand vacated upon expiry of a period of six months, until extended by a reasoned speaking order. The Trial Courts must also in such circumstances, fix the next date of hearing not beyond six months, to ensure speedy commencement of proceedings on the lapse of the stay on proceedings.

The Supreme Court was thus of the view that the High Courts must balance the freedom of an individual on one hand and security of the society on the other and exercise jurisdiction only in cases of patent illegality or want of jurisdiction. While considering such challenges, the High Court is not required to meticulously examine the material on record, but merely see whether the record reasonably connects the accused to the crime or not.

HELD

The Supreme Court held that an order for framing charge may not be held to be purely an interlocutory order and can be interfered with under Sections 397(2) or 482 of Cr.PC. as well as under Article 227 of the Constitution, which is a constitutional provision. However, the power of the High Court to interfere with an order for framing charge and to grant stay is to be exercised only in an exceptional situation. The stay on such proceedings shall be valid for a period of six months and can only be extended by a speaking order showing the extraordinary circumstances for continuing the stay on trial. The Supreme Court directed that, "In all pending matters before the High Courts or other courts relating to PC Act or all other civil or criminal cases, where stay of proceedings in a pending trial is operating, stay will automatically lapse after six months from today unless extended by a speaking order on above parameters. Same course may also be adopted by civil and criminal appellate/revisional courts under the jurisdiction of the High Courts. The trial courts may, on expiry of above period, resume the proceedings without waiting for any other intimation unless express order extending stay is produced."

COMMENTS

This decision by the Supreme Court after having greatly deliberated upon various judicial precedents having conflicting views has provided greater sanctity to the concept of "speedy justice". Without limiting the powers of the High Courts or the rights of the citizens, the Supreme Court has carefully crafted a mechanism for curbing inordinate delays, which are against the legislative intent. By extending its applicability to both criminal as well as civil trials, this judgement way well be a step towards reforming the traditional procedural delay which diminishes justice in its truest sense.  This decision would therefore have a tremendous impact on several ongoing trials, both civil and criminal.

Footnote

1. Criminal Appeal No 1375-1376 of 2013

The content of this document do not necessarily reflect the views/position of Khaitan & Co but remain solely those of the author(s). For any further queries or follow up please contact Khaitan & Co at legalalerts@khaitanco.com

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