Plea Bargaining – Development in the Criminal Justice System

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This article has been written by Mustafa Chitalwala., a student of Symbiosis Law School, Pune

“The greatest drawback of the administration of justice in India today is because of the delay of cases…………………. The law may or may not be an ass, but in India, it is certainly a snail, and our cases proceed at a pace which would be regarded as unduly slow in the community of snails. Justice has to be blind, but I see no reason why it should be lame. Here it just hobbles along, barely able to work.”

– Nani Palkhivala[1]

 

The words of wisdom spoken by a laudable jurist. There is no doubt that the Indian administration is slow at delivering justice. Even though Article 21 of the Indian Constitution, talks about the speedy trial as a fundamental right, which looks very good on paper but seemingly unrealistic for the Indian Administration. The Indian courts have more than 3 crore cases pending, and the Convid-19 situation plainly worsens the number of pending cases. As of March 2020, Indian Supreme Court has 60,469 cases pending. The solution to these stacked up cases and the low rate of conviction was recognized by the legislature and was later introduced in the concept of “Plea Bargaining.”

The concept of Plea Bargaining or the Doctrine of Nolo Contendere was introduced in the legislature by way of the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act, 2005. This was introduced to solve the problem of dawdling justice. A new chapter XXI A (Section 265A to 265L) was introduced on Plea Bargaining in the Criminal Procedure Code, 1973.

The Black’s Law Dictionary defined it as “Plea-bargaining is the process whereby the accused and the prosecutor in a criminal case work out a mutually satisfactory disposition of the case subject to the court approval. It usually involves the defendant’s pleading guilty to a lesser offence as to only one or some of the courts of a multi-count indictment in return for a lighter sentence than that possible for the graver charge”.[2]

ORIGIN OF PLEA BARGAINING

The concept of plea bargaining is evolved in the United States and has become a prominent feature of the American criminal justice system throughout the years.  However, the concept for plea bargaining is an ancient concept in India being traced all the way back to the Vedic time as in the Dharamsastras, by the chapter known as Prayaschitta, which means corrective measures for Atma Shanti or self-purification of one’s guilt. In the Mauryan period, it was practised as a form of reconciliation. In the Mughal era, it was a part of the Quisas system where an accused must give money to the deceased victim’s next families in case of homicide. Later also vaguely mentioned in the Constitution of India as Article 20(3). Subsequently, Plea Bargaining was added into our legislation in the CPC.

THE LAW COMMISSION OF INDIA’S REPORTS

The Law Commission of India supported the emergent concept of plea bargaining in the 142nd, 154th & 177th  reports and the Malimath Committee on Reforms of Criminal Justice System (2001-03). The commissions and committee suggested incorporating plea bargaining, citing examples of the success of the concept in jurisdictions such as the United States of America. The 142nd law commission report proposed the introduction of Plea Bargaining into the Indian judicial system. The motive was to reduce the delay in the judicial system and examine the concept of plea bargaining exercised in the United States of America. In the recent era, roughly 90% of criminal cases in the USA cases are resolved through plea bargaining. The Commission recommended that it would be applicable to offences which are punishable with the imprisonment of less than 7 years. The Commission even considered that plea bargaining should not be available to habitual offenders and offenders against women and children. In the 154th report, the Law Commission of India also recommended the concept of plea bargaining in the Indian criminal justice system. The report also stated that the reasoning for introducing the concept of Plea Bargaining could not be better expressed than the 142nd  report of the Law Commission of India, which lead to these reports being supported and reiterated by the 174th Law Commission report. These reports were later submitted to the Malimath Committee on Reforms of Criminal Justice System (2001-03). Which then recommended that plea bargaining should be introduced into the Criminal Justice System of India to reduce the burden on courts and increase the rate of conviction.

JUDICIAL RESPONSE

The concept initially was not accepted by the supreme court judges deeming in immoral, a law leading to more corruption and the law being violative of  Article 21. The Hon’ble Supreme Court examined the concept of plea bargaining for the first time in Murlidhar Meghraj Loya v. State of Maharashtra (AIR 1976 SC 1929). [3] The Court examined Plea Bargaining as intruding upon societies interests and immoral. The State has to enforce the law and not to barter the accused with a lesser sentence. In Kasambhai v. the State of Gujarat[4] & Kachhia Patel Shantilal Koderlal v. the State of Gujarat and another, the Hon’ble Supreme Court again disapproved the concept of plea bargaining and held it as a highly reprehensible practice. The Supreme court went a step ahead in case of in Thippaswamy v. the State of Karnataka[5]. The Hon’ble Supreme Court held that it was a violation of Article 21 of the Indian Constitution to induce or lead the accused to plead guilty on the basis of a promise or assurance that he would be let off lightly. A conviction of an accused based on plea bargaining is contrary to public policy, and it is not permissible to dispose of the case based on plea bargaining. Mere admission or acceptance of the guilt must not be a ground for reduction of sentence.

Surprisingly, later the courts started showing a very positive perception, and there was a shift in the judiciary approach towards Plea Bargaining which is noticed in the State of UP v. Nasruddin,[6] the Supreme court held that reduction of the sentence should undergo as a result of plea bargaining. Similarly, in State of Gujrat v. Natwar Harchanji Thakore, the court emphasized the introduction of plea bargaining because the law intends to provide accessible, cheap and expeditious justice by resolution of disputes. In the current scenario with pendency and delay of justice, the fundamental reforms are unavoidable. There should not be anything static. It can thus be said that it is a measure and redressal and it shall add a new dimension in the realm of judicial reforms.

CONCLUSION

“Plea bargaining can improve our criminal justice system tremendously,” said Dr. Vijayakumar.

India is familiar with the concept of plea bargaining since it has been used since aeons to provide speedy justice. At first, the judiciary was very unwelcoming towards the notion of plea bargaining. However, overtime after much contemplation, the Indian court has felt the need for plea bargaining in the Indian legal system. When a change is brought, it is hard to accept it initially, but society needs to grow so does our legal system. The concept was recognized in the Constitution as well in Article 20(3), which prohibits self-incrimination.

There is more than 3 crore pending cases in India, which leads several accused behind bars. The state government spends Rs.55 a day on each prisoner which puts a significant toll on the state governments expenditures just because of delayed justice. Plea Bargaining will help reduce the backlog under the judiciary and the number of prisoners in jail by providing speedy justice. However, the concept of plea bargaining is evolving in India, and it is not appropriate to expect it to be utopian; nevertheless, It can only be improved by debate, discussions, and discourses.

References:

[1] Anand, J., 2018. Displeasure Of Indian Judiciary Towards Plea Bargaining. [online]Lexinsight.wordpress.com.

[2] Legalservicesindia.com. n.d. Plea-Bargaining: Present Status In India.

[3] 1976 AIR 1929, 1977 SCR (1) 1

[4] 1980 AIR 854, 1980 SCR (2)1037

[5] AIR 1983 SC 747, 1983 CriLJ 1271, 1982 (2) SCALE 1398, (1983) 1 SCC 194

[6] 2000 CriLJ 4996, JT 2000 (8) SC 487

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