Wednesday, January 21, 2015

SC puts curbs on adjournments to ensure fairer and faster trials

In a step that would ensure free and speedy trial, the Supreme Court on Wednesday ordered courts not to grant any adjournment during the most crucial phase of trial, which is between deposition of witness and his cross-examination by the counsel for accused. 

The court took strong exception to long gaps between deposition of a witness and his cross-examination and said adjournments at this crucial juncture provided the accused ample opportunity to win over witnesses and reduce the trial to a mere apology. 

"It is distressing to note that despite a series of judgments of the Supreme Court, the habit of granting adjournment, really an ailment, continues," a bench of Justices Dipak Misra and R F Nariman said and commanded trial courts not to adjourn proceedings between deposition and cross-examination of a witness. 

This means, from now onwards, a trial court has to hold the trial proceedings continuously on a day to day basis once the witness starts deposition till his cross-examination is over. This would go a long way in expediting the trial proceedings, which are notorious for their snail pace in a litigation-congested judiciary. 

The court gave vent to its anguish after finding that in a trap case under Prevention of Corruption Act, a trial court in Punjab had granted many adjournments resulting in a gap of 20 months between deposition of the witness and his cross-examination. Little wonder that the witness went back on his statement. 

Writing the judgment for the bench, Justice Misra said, "How long shall we say 'awake and arise'? There is a constant discomfort... Adjournments are sought on the drop of a hat by the counsel, even though the witness is present in the court, contrary to all principles of holding a trial." 

It ordered that this judgment, banning adjournment in the crucial phase of trial, be circulated among trial judges "with a command to follow the principles relating to a trial in a requisite manner and not to defer the cross-examination of a witness at the pleasure or at the leisure of the defence counsel, for it eventually makes the trial an apology for trial and compels the whole society to suffer chicanery". 

The judgment came in a case where a public servant was caught red-handed while accepting bribe from a tractor-trolley owner for allowing it to enter the municipal area of Rajpura in January 1995. The witness recorded his statement before the trial court on September 13, 1999 but his cross-examination took place 20 months later on May 25, 2001. 

The complainant-cum-witness made a U-turn. But one independent witness stood by the prosecution, leading to the trial court recording conviction. The HC too saw through the delaying tactics by the accused in cross-examining the witness and confirmed the conviction of the public servant and a sentence of two years. 

The SC upheld the conviction and sentence, but frowned at the long adjournment of proceedings between deposition of the witness and his cross-examination. "We fail to appreciate how the trial judge could exhibit such laxity in granting so much time for cross-examination in a case of this nature," it said and advised that the proper course for a trial judge was to complete cross-examination on the day witnesses are examined. 

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