There are a vast number of litigations, pre trials and back log cases pending before the courts in India. Undue delay in hearing the matters often amounts to questioning of the credibility and reliability of the Indian Judiciary. In order to reduce the pendency and backlogging of cases, and also alleviate the sufferings of the undertrial prisoners, the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act (2005) has introduced sections 265A- 265L in the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC). Plea bargaining is a beneficial induction for reforming the criminal justice system in the country.
The pre-trial negotiation between the defendant and the prosecution whereby the defendant pleads guilty and the prosecution makes certain concessions is the general meaning of plea bargaining. The concession can be relating to the sentence or the seriousness of charge. It is a contractual agreement between the prosecution and the defendant and this contract can be enforced until approved by a judge.
Plea Bargaining in USA
Plea bargaining is a crucial feature of the American Criminal Justice system. In the landmark case of Brady v. United States, the constitutionality of plea bargaining was considered by the SCOTUS who ruled in the positive. The court recognised the mutuality of advantage for the prosecution and the State and erased the fears of the real guilty persons escaping lightly under this mechanism. A voluntary guilty plea is not just an admission of past conduct, rather, it is the defendant’s authorisation for the judgement of conviction without a right to trial before a judge. The Supreme Court also found that awarding lesser punishment is not invalid and is, in fact, beneficial for the State and the accused enters the correctional system with the frame of mind that enables success of rehabilitation. Similar position was reiterated in other notable cases like Hutto v. Ross, Backledge v. Allison and Chaffin v. Stynchcombe.
Plea bargaining is generally of two distinct categories: charge bargaining and sentence bargaining. The accused pleads guilty, not guilty or plea of nolo contendere in the United States. In India, the concept of plea bargaining is derived from the doctrine of nolo contendere.
Right to speedy trial and plea bargaining in India
In the landmark case of Hussainara Khatoon v. State of Bihar, the Supreme Court noticed several under- trial prisoners and took cognisance of the enormous delay in the disposal of criminal matters in the Courts. It lamented the travesty of justice for several poor under- trials and ruled that speedy trial is the essence of criminal justice. Further, delay in trial constitutes denial of justice.
In India, the concept of plea bargaining was not recognised as such. Reference was found in section 206(1) and (3) of CrPC and 208(1) of the Motor Vehicles Act, 1988. The Supreme Court assessed the importance of plea bargaining in Murlidhar Meghraj Loya v. State of Maharashtra (Per Krishna Iyer, Goswami JJ) and Kasambhai Abdulrehmanbhai Sheik v. State of Gujarat (Per Bhadwati, Sen JJ). However, the court ruled that the procedure of plea bargaining was unreasonable, unjust and violative of Article 21 of the Constitution prescribing that no person shall be deprived of life or personal liberty except according to procedure established by law. This, however, restricts to the context of entering into plea bargaining in an informal way and without legal sanction.
Objections to plea bargaining in India
It was contended that the introduction of plea bargaining is counterproductive in Indian criminal jurisprudence because the social condition of the country viz., economic and educational conditions does not justify the introduction of the concept. Therefore, the poor will be the ultimate victims of plea bargaining. However, the Law Commission was of the opinion that such criticisms are unwarranted as plea bargaining saves aa lot of time, cost and resources and also makes rehabilitation and reformation of offenders easier. It also concluded that plea bargaining must be restricted to “less serious” offences and socio- economic offences are offended.
Chapter XXI-A of the CrPC
Sections 265A to 265L of the CrPC deals with plea bargaining. Section 265A lays down the applicability of plea bargaining and clearly enunciates that it is available only for offences whose punishment is lesser than 7 years. It excludes offences whose punishment is death, imprisonment of life, imprisonment greater than 7 years and socio- economic offences against a woman or child lesser than fourteen years.
Section 265B allows the accused to file an application of plea bargaining in the Court which is accompanied with a sworn affidavit as to the voluntary confession of the offence, while the case is subsisting in the Court. The guidelines for satisfactory disposition among the parties is laid down in Section 265C. The Court delivers a judgement on plea bargaining under Section 265F and the finality of the judgement is stated under Section 265G of CrPC. The non- obstante clause is contained in Section 265J.
- Law commission of India, One Hundred Forty Second Report on Concessional Treatment for Offenders who on their own initiative choose to plead guilty without any Bargaining (1991).
- Rosie Athulya Joseph, Plea Bargaining: a means to an end, Manupatra