Criminal trials involving elected representatives will now be monitored by a special bench of each high court and in cases where a trial has been stayed, the special bench will hear and decide on continuing or cancelling the stay, preferably within two months.
An order to this effect was passed on Wednesday by a three-judge bench of the Supreme Court hearing a public interest litigation (PIL) that seeks to fast-track pending criminal trials involving sitting and former legislators.
“Ensuring the purity of democratically elected institutions is the hallmark of the present proceedings,” a three-judge bench headed by justice NV Ramana said. “Such special consideration (to expedite cases against legislators) was required not only because of the rising wave of criminalization that was occurring in the politics in the country, but also due to the power that elected representatives wield to influence or hamper effective prosecution.”
The bench, also comprising justices Surya Kant and Hrishikesh Roy, said: “The chief justices of the high courts shall also designate a special bench, comprising themselves and their designate, in order to monitor the progress of these trials.”
A court- appointed amicus curiae (friend of the court), senior advocate Vijay Hansaria, in two reports submitted on September 8 and 15, highlighted that despite the best efforts by the court to constitute special courts for trying cases against legislators, close to 4,442 criminal cases involving 2,556 sitting members of Parliament (MP) and members of legislative assemblies (MLAs) were pending.
Reasons for trial getting delayed included stays granted by various high courts, insufficient special courts to exclusively try cases against MPs/MLAs, a shortage of prosecutors and latches in prosecution, and lastly, delayed investigation.
The top court bench headed by Ramana requested high court chief justices to list all pending cases involving MPs/MLAs (sitting and former) where a stay has been granted and asked the special benches to decide “whether the stay granted should continue”. This exercise is to be completed within a period of two months, the bench said.
The bench held that the present Covid-19 situation should not be grounds to adjourn the cases because they can also be heard through video conferencing.
The action plan to be prepared by the concerned chief justices in two weeks will provide a blueprint after assessing the existing number of cases vis-à-vis number of special courts, the need for special courts and adequacy of infrastructure in the state, number of judicial officers, the maximum cases to be assigned per judicial officer, distance of the designated court from the districts where cases are pending, and expected time for disposal of cases.
In his reports, Hansaria suggested adding more special courts, one in each district, with a dedicated judicial officer who should decide the cases within one year. Any stay granted by a high courts must either go or be decided on speedily, he said.
Based on these suggestions, the bench passed a slew of directions to the high courts asking them to prepare an action plan on expediting the existing pending cases in each district and constitute special bench to monitor the trials.
The apex court also sought a status report from solicitor general Tushar Mehta on the stage of investigation pending against MPs/MLAs in cases probed by central agencies such as Central Bureau of Investigation and Enforcement Directorate. There are 175 cases under the Prevention of Corruption Act and 14 cases under the Prevention of Money Laundering Act pending against sitting/former MPs and MLAs.
The court, in its order, directed Mehta to indicate the status with regard to grant of sanction for prosecution, reasons for delays and expected time for completing the trials/investigations in the report to be presented by the next date of hearing, expected to be October 1.
Mehta had submitted on Wednesday that the Centre supports a time-bound completion of trials pending against legislators. The law officer submitted, “Appropriate action would be taken by the nodal departments against any officer responsible for unreasonable delay.”
Advocate Sneha Kalita, assisting the amicus curiae, said: “Having more special courts functioning under strict vigilance of designated special bench of high courts will certainly go a long way to expedite trials in cases against elected representatives. This was suggested by the amicus curiae too. The court has also sought information from CBI, ED on status of grant of sanction to prosecute legislators. This will help investigations in cases against MPs/MLAs to be time-bound.”