Context: Recently, many members of the Tablighi Jamaat belonging to different countries have obtained release from court cases by means of plea bargaining.
More on the news:
- These foreign nationals, accused of violating visa conditions by attending a religious congregation, have walked free after pleading guilty to minor offences and paying the fines imposed by the court.
About plea bargaining:
- Even though plea bargaining is available to those accused of criminal offences in India for over a decade, it is not commonly used.
- The above cases have brought the focus on plea bargaining as a practice by which time consuming trials can be avoided.
- It refers to a person charged with a criminal offence negotiating with the prosecution for a lesser punishment than what is provided in law by pleading guilty to a less serious offence.
- It primarily involves pretrial negotiations between the accused and the prosecutor.
- It may involve bargaining on the charge or in the quantum of sentence.
- It is common in the United States, and has been a successful method of avoiding protracted and complicated trials.
- As a result, conviction rates are significantly high there.
- In India, there has always been a provision in the Code of Criminal Procedure for an accused to plead ‘guilty’ instead of claiming the right to a full trial, but it is not the same as plea bargaining.
- The Law Commission of India (142nd Report), mooted the idea of “concessional treatment” of those who plead guilty on their own volition.
- But, the Law Commision was careful to underscore that it would not involve any plea bargaining with the prosecution.
- Plea bargaining was introduced (explicitly) in 2006 as part of a set of amendments to the CrPC.
Circumstances in which plea bargaining is allowed:
- Initiated only by the accused: Unlike in the U.S. and other countries (where the prosecutor plays a key role in bargaining with the suspected offender), the Indian code makes plea bargaining a process that can be initiated only by the accused.
- Further, the accused will have to apply to the court for invoking the benefit of bargaining.
- Allowed for a limited number of cases: Offences that do not attract the death sentence, life sentence or a prison term above seven years can make use of the scheme.
- It is also applicable to private complaints of which a criminal court has taken cognisance.
- Offences affecting the “socio-economic conditions” of the country, or committed against a woman or a child below the age of 14, cannot be disposed of through plea bargaining.
- The outcome of plea bargaining:
- May involve payment of compensation and other expenses to the victim by the accused.
- The accused may be sentenced to a prison term that is half the minimum period fixed for the offence.
- If there is no minimum term prescribed, the sentence should run up to one-fourth of the maximum sentence stipulated in law.
Benefits of the plea bargaining scheme:
- The Justice Malimath Committee endorsed the concept of plea bargaining owing to its benefits -
- Speedy trial, end uncertainty over the outcome of criminal cases.
- Save litigation costs and relieve the parties of anxiety.
- It would also have a dramatic impact on conviction rates.
- Decongest prisons: Prolonged incarceration of undertrials without any progress in the case for years and overcrowding of prisons were also other factors that may be cited in support of plea bargaining.
- Opportunity to reform: It may help offenders make a fresh start in life.
Judiciary’s take on the scheme:
- Case law has not yet developed: For the plea bargaining as the provision is possibly not used adequately.
- Earlier judgments of various courts: These indicate the judiciary may have reservations as some verdicts disapprove of bargaining with offenders, and point out that lenient sentences could be considered as part of the circumstances of the case after a regular trial.
- Courts are also very particular: About the voluntary nature of the exercise, as poverty, ignorance and prosecution pressure should not lead to someone pleading guilty of offences that may not have been committed.
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