A sensible time-frame

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Now, cases against lawmakers will be expedited

The Supreme Court's directive to expedite legal proceedings against Members of Parliament and the Legislative Assemblies will not only serve the cause of justice in general but also help de-criminalise Indian politics in particular. On Monday, the apex court set a one year deadline, from the day charges are filed, for the lower courts to wrap up criminal cases against serving lawmakers. Specifically, these cases relate to Section 8(1), Section 8(2) and Section 8(3) of the Representation of the People Act, 1951, and cover offences such as insulting the national flag, spreading enmity between communities or hoarding essential commodities, for which the maximum punishment is two years or more. The Supreme Court said that hearings in such cases should be conducted on a day-to-day basis. If the lower court is unable to meet the one-year deadline, it will have to explain the delay to the Chief Justice of its respective High Court. Obviously, the directive will go a long way in ensuring speedy justice to the aggrieved party — be it the state or the accused Legislator. In the case of the former, often the verdicts are so terribly delayed that the compensation eventually awarded is too little and comes too late. As for the latter, let us not forget that lawmakers have often complained that spurious cases are routinely filed against them in the lower courts almost always as part of some political conspiracy. The cases take years to be resolved, and in the meantime, the politician must bear the taint of being a criminal. Sure, everyone is innocent until proven guilty, but for those in public life, popular perceptions are crucial. Criminal charges tagged on to politicians for years — and routinely raked up by rivals to score easy electoral gains — can take a huge toll. Even if the politician is later exonerated by the courts, the damage is already done. But this is just one side of the story.

On the other side are politicians who commit heinous crimes but still hold onto positions in Parliament and Legislative Assemblies across the country for several years on the pretext that they are yet to be pronounced guilty by the courts. Monday's Supreme Court directive will help address that loophole. Indeed, it must also be viewed in consonance with the apex court's previous efforts to keep criminals away from the legislatures. In July 2013, the Supreme Court held that Section 8(4) of the Representation of the People Act, 1951, was ultra vires to the Constitution and struck down the provision that shielded a lawmaker from disqualification, even after he had been convicted in a criminal case. Section 8(4) was premised on the fact that the lawmaker had the right to remain in office till the pendency of appeal. This, however, meant that many convicted politicians held high offices as their criminal cases meandered through the system at a snail's pace. Thankfully, the Supreme Court has changed much of that recently. Finally, it is hoped that as one set of cases is put on the fast track, it will have a domino effect and speed up other cases that do not involve lawmakers. This will be a tremendous relief to the common man who often spends as a litigant what seems like a lifetime stuck the labyrinth that is the Indian justice system.  

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