Polity & Governance
27th Jul, 2020
Many members of the Tablighi Jamaat belonging to different countries have obtained release from court cases in recent days using plea bargaining.
- Accused of violating visa conditions by attending a religious congregation in Delhi, these foreign nationals have walked free after pleading guilty to minor offences and paying the fines imposed by the court.
- These cases have brought the focus on plea bargaining as a practice by which time-consuming trials can be avoided.
What is Plea Bargaining?
- 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 pre-trial negotiations between the accused and the prosecutor. It may involve bargaining on the charge or in the quantum of sentence.
Few countries where Plea Bargaining is practiced
- In 1975, the Law Reform Commission of Canada defined ‘plea bargaining’ as ‘any agreement by the accused to plead guilty in return for the promise of some benefit’.
- But over a period of time there was a movement away from the use of the term ‘plea bargaining’ and toward more neutral expressions such as ‘plea discussions’, ‘resolution discussions’, ‘plea negotiations’, and ‘plea agreements’.
- 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 the U.S. and other countries, the prosecutor plays a key role in bargaining with the suspected offender.
- 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, in its 142nd Report, mooted the idea of “concessional treatment” of those who plead guilty on their own volition but was careful to underscore that it would not involve any plea bargaining or “haggling” with the prosecution.
- The concept was not part of the law until 2006. Plea bargaining (Doctrine of Nolo Contendere) was introduced in 2006 as part of a set of amendments to the CrPC as Chapter XXI-A, containing Sections 265A to 265L.
- The Supreme Court of India has examined the concept of plea-bargaining in the case of Murlidhar Meghraj Loyat v. State of Maharashtra and Kasambhai v. the State of Gujarat.
- In Murlidhar Meghraj Loya vs the State of Maharashtra, the Supreme Court criticized the concept of Plea Bargaining and said that it intrudes upon the society’s interests.
- In Kasambhai’s case, the Supreme Court resisted a plea of guilt based on plea-bargaining, as it would be opposed to public policy, if an accused were to be convicted by inducing him to plead guilty, by holding out a light sentence as an allurement.
To what cases is it applicable?
- 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.
- Cases for which the practice is allowed are limited. Only someone who has been charge-sheeted for an offence that does 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.
- Categories of cases that cannot be disposed of through plea bargaining are those that involve:
- Offences affecting the “socio-economic conditions” of the country, or
- Committed against a woman or a child below the age of 14.
Benefits of Plea Bargaining
- The Justice Malimath Committee on reforms of the criminal justice system endorsed the various recommendations of the Law Commission concerning plea bargaining.
- The practice would ensure a 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. It may help offenders make a fresh start in life.
- Voluntary Mechanism: The applicant should approach the court stating that it is a voluntary preference and that he has understood the nature and extent of punishment provided in law for the offence.
- Non-Binding on the court: If the applicant reaches an agreement with the prosecutor, the court is not bound to accept this agreement.
- It may lead to poor investigatory procedures.
- Coercive Manipulation: Its close relationship with rewards, threats, and coercion potentially endanger the correct legal outcome.
- It provides for lighter sentence even if the person is found guilty.
- It requires a defendant to plead guilty to the lighter charges; it eliminates the chance for an appeal.
Plea bargaining has been introduced to overcome the problem of overcrowded jails, overburdened courts, and abnormal delays; it may also result in faster disposal of cases. But the reason behind the delay in trials can be traced to the operation of the investigative agencies as well as the judiciary. Therefore reformation of the existing system may be a more prudent approach rather than introducing a parallel arrangement (as recommended by the Law Commission) or supplementing the present arrangement.