Denying bail to accused because lawyer was unprepared would be travesty of justice: Supreme Court

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The Supreme Court on Friday lamented the fact that the Allahabad High Court denied bail to persons languishing in jail for long periods only on account of their lawyers being unprepared.

The Bench of Justices Sanjay Kishan Kaul and MM Sundresh observed,

“There is an apparent misconception that a bail plea cannot be considered on circumstances and it is true that counsel cannot get away by being unprepared. But caveat to this will be when accused has undergone 14 years plus in prison and other conditions have to be seen. Thus to deny bail to a person for fault of counsel would be really a travesty of justice.”

The Court was hearing a plea related to the circumstances in which courts should consider grant of bail to convicts who have been in custody for a considerable period of time, and whose criminal appeals were pending before higher courts. The matter specifically related to such criminal appeals pending before the Allahabad High Court.

The apex court had earlier directed these bail matters to be placed before the High Court; the Registry was required to register them as suo motu cases.

Today, the Court found that though the suo motu cases have been registered, they are yet to be listed for hearing.

“We have a report of the High Court which seeks to suggest that the 18 matters remitted to the High Court for bail were listed on November 16 and 18 ,and that appearances were not put in on behalf of the appellants. None appeared to press the matter to be taken up,” Justice Kaul observed.

Appearing for the High Court, Advocate Nikhil Goel contended that some of the matters have been disposed of, and in others, lawyers for the accused were not prepared.

Justice Kaul then said,

“I have been getting an impression and input that you people don’t want to appear before the High Court and want Supreme Court to look at it as the first court.”

The judge called for a system to be developed by which such cases are automatically dealt with, and urged the State government and the High Court to coordinate to put the same in place.

“I can understand the anxiety that people should not be out on bail. I am sorry Mr Goel, I feel this approach is wrong. If its 14 years or 17 years and lawyer is not ready to argue, should they suffer for lawyers unpreparedness?” Justice Kaul asked.

The Court thus called upon the High Court to prepare a list of accused who have served 14 years in jail and whose appeals have not been heard due to the fault of the lawyer.

“There may be cases where for whatever reasons, lawyer is not present. But if they have completed 14 years in prison, State itself can take an apt stand and the High Court judge can pass orders to examine the case for release. Absence of advocate cannot come in the way of this,” it further opined.

Separate lists for those have undergone 10-14 years in custody and 10 years in custody should also be prepared, the Court suggested.

Even as the Bench said that it could not control the High Court, it expressed its displeasure at the manner in which it handled such cases. Pointing to one such instance, it observed,

“In this other case, the accused has been in prison for 17 years and bail plea was rejected by High Court. Since counsel was not prepared, the plea was rejected, and thereafter, four times the plea was not heard even when counsel was ready.”

While making these observations, the Court granted bail to the accused in question. A exasperated Justice Kaul said,

“How much time did we take to grant bail? 15 minutes. We wanted High Court to find a template, but we are exasperated today.”

As the hearing concluded, Justice Kaul said,

“We come across orders from the High Court where bail is rejected because heinous crime [has been committed]…but is not reformative process possible? We have to see how he behaves in the society?”

Justice Sundresh added,

“Who will give them back the years which they lost if appeal succeeds? We only look at it from the punitive lens. This is the problem.”

The matter will be next heard on March 31.

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