Plea Bargaining | 24 Jul 2020

Why in News

Several citizens of various countries, who were accused of violating visa conditions and government guidelines following the Covid-19 pandemic, have obtained release from court cases in recent days by means of plea bargaining.

Key Points

  • Plea Bargaining:
    • It refers to a person charged with a criminal offence (accused) 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.
  • Provision in India:
    • Plead Guilty: There has always been a provision in the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC) for an accused to plead ‘guilty’ instead of claiming the right to a full trial, but it is not the same as plea bargaining.
    • Plea Bargaining: Plea bargaining was introduced in 2006 as part of a set of amendments to the CrPC as Chapter XXI-A, containing Sections 265A to 265L.
    • Cases for which the plea bargaining is allowed are limited.
      • Only someone who has been charged 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 under Chapter XXI-A. It is also applicable to private complaints of which a criminal court has taken cognisance.
      • Other 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.
  • Procedure in India:
    • The plea bargaining process can be initiated only by the accused. This provision is different from the one in other countries like the USA where the prosecutor plays a key role in bargaining with the suspected offender.
    • The accused will have to apply to the court for invoking the benefit of bargaining.
    • Thereafter, the court may permit the prosecutor, the investigating officer and the victim (if any) to hold a meeting for a “satisfactory disposition of the case”.
    • Once mutual satisfaction is reached, the court formalises the arrangement by way of a report signed by all the parties and the presiding officer.
      • 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.
      • The outcome may also involve payment of compensation and other expenses to the victim by the accused.
  • Arguments in Favour:
    • As per the Justice Malimath Committee on reforms of the criminal justice system (formed in 2000):
      • This ensures speedy trial, ends uncertainty over the outcome of criminal cases, saves litigation costs and relieves the parties of anxiety.
      • It would also have a dramatic impact on conviction rates.
        • It is common in the USA, and has been a successful method of avoiding protracted and complicated trials. As a result, conviction rates are significantly high there.
    • Prolonged imprisonment of undertrials without any progress in the case for years and overcrowding of prisons are also other factors that may be cited in support of reducing pendency of cases and decongesting prisons through plea bargaining.
    • It may help offenders make a fresh start in life.
  • Arguments Against:
    • People who are pushed to plea bargain are those who do not have the wherewithal to arrange for bail.
    • Even 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.
      • The Judiciary in its earlier verdicts (especially before the introduction of the process) had disapproved of bargaining with offenders, and pointed out that lenient sentences could be considered as part of the circumstances of the case after a regular trial. Mere acceptance or admission of the guilt should not be a ground for reduction of sentence.
    • Further, it may hamper the victim’s right to fair trial, involvement of coercion by the investigating agencies and corruption in the process.
    • Some argue that it is against Article 20 (3) of the Constitution which provides immunity to an accused against self-incrimination.

Way Forward

  • To sum up, while plea bargaining is beneficial to the accused and victim of a crime, enough safeguards are required to be placed to stop possible abuse of this process.
  • Plea bargain is a pragmatic vision to overcome crowded criminal courts and prisons and a potential way to improve the litigation efficiency and rationalize judicial resources, infrastructure and expenses.

Source: TH