The Supreme Court on Wednesday ruled that the proceedings in any pending trial relating to graft or criminal cases should not be stayed from now on by an appellate court for more than six months, without a speaking order.
Observing that the "cancer of corruption" has eaten into the vitals of the State and needed to be nipped in the bud, it had a word of caution for the higher appellate courts, saying the power to stay the trial proceedings has to be exercised with "restraint" especially in corruption cases.
A bench of Justices Adarsh Kumar Goel, Navin Sinha and RF Nariman laid down the time limit for the stay of proceedings, saying the legislative mandate of expeditious disposal of a trial should be respected.
It ruled that a stay of proceedings by an appellate court in any pending trial related to either corruption or civil or criminal cases, shall not operate for more than six months from today itself, unless the restraint is extended by a speaking order.
The ruling came on a question of law as to whether a high court has the jurisdiction to entertain an appeal against an order framing charge by the trial court.
Answering the question in the affirmative, the special bench of the top court said "We have thus no hesitation in concluding that the High Court has jurisdiction in appropriate case to consider the challenge against an order framing charge and also to grant stay."
It, however, said the power to entertain a challenge to an order of charge "should be exercised in a rarest of rare case only to correct a patent error of jurisdiction and not to re-appreciate the matter".
"It is well accepted that delay in a criminal trial, particularly in the Prevention of Corruption Act cases, has deleterious effect on the administration of justice in which the society has a vital interest. Delay in trials affects the faith in Rule of Law and efficacy of the legal system. It affects social welfare and development.
"Even in civil or tax cases it has been laid down that power to grant stay has to be exercised with restraint. Mere prima facie case is not enough. Party seeking stay must be put to terms and stay should not be incentive to delay. The order granting stay must show application of mind. The power to grant stay is coupled with accountability," it said.
The bench, which wrote two concurring judgements, said where a challenge to an order against framing of charge is entertained and stay is granted, the matter must be decided on day-to-day basis so that the restraint on proceedings does not operate for an unduly long period.
"Though no mandatory time limit may be fixed, the decision may not exceed 2-3 months normally. If it remains pending longer, duration of stay should not exceed six months, unless extension is granted by a specific speaking order, as already indicated," it said.
The mandate of speedy justice applied to the graft cases as well as other matters where, at trial stage, proceedings have been stayed by the higher court -- the High Court -- or a court below the High Court, as the case may be.
It said that "in all pending matters before the High Courts or other courts relating to corruption or all other civil or criminal cases, where stay of proceedings in a pending trial is operating, stay will automatically lapse after six months from today unless extended by a speaking order on above parameters.
"In cases where stay is granted in future, the same will end on expiry of six months from the date of such order unless similar extension is granted by a speaking order. Same course may also be adopted by civil and criminal appellate/ revisional courts under the jurisdiction of the High Courts. The trial courts may, on expiry of above period, resume the proceedings without waiting for any other intimation unless express order extending stay is produced," it added.
It also said that the speaking order must show that the case was of such exceptional nature that continuing the stay was more important than having the trial finalised.
The apex court left it to the High Courts to issue instructions to this effect and monitor the same "so that civil or criminal proceedings do not remain pending for unduly at the trial stage".
The question of law was framed by the Delhi High Court when dealing with a 2001 corruption case relating to alleged wrongful loss caused to the Municipal Corporation of Delhi by some of its officials and a road surfacing firm.
According to the CBI, the loss was caused by the use of fake invoices of oil companies in relation to transportation of bitumen for dense carpeting of Delhi roads in the years 1997 and 1998.