R. C. LAHOTI, J. -
(1.)No person shall be deprived of his life or his personal liberty except according to procedure established by law - declares Art. 21 of the Constitution. 'Life and liberty', the words employed in shaping Art. 21, by the founding fathers of the Constitution, are not to be read narrowly in the sense drearily dictated by dictionaries; they are organic terms to be construed meaningfully. Embarking upon the interpretation thereof, feeling the heart -throb of the Preamble, deriving strength from the Directive Principles of state policy and alive to their constitutional obligation, the courts have allowed Art. 21 to stretch its arms as wide as it legitimately can. The mental agony, expense and strain which a person proceeded against in criminal law has to undergo and which, coupled with delay, may result in impairing the capability or ability of the accused to defend himself have persuaded the constitutional courts of the country in holding the right to speedy trial a manifestation of fair, just and reasonable procedure enshrined in Article 21. Speedy trial, again, would encompass within its sweep all its stages including investigation, inquiry, trial, appeal, revision and retrial - in short, everything commencing with an accusation and expiring with the final verdict - the two being respectively the terminus a quo and terminus ad quem - of the journey which an accused must necessarily undertake once faced with an implication. The constitutional philosophy propounded as right to speedy trial has though grown in age by almost two and a half decades, the goal sought to be achieved is yet a far off peak. Myriad fact -situations bearing testimony to denial of such fundamental right to the accused persons, on account of failure on the part of prosecuting agencies and executive to act, and their turning an almost blind eye at securing expeditious and speedy trial so as to satisfy the mandate of Article 21 of the Constitution have persuaded this Court in devising solutions which go to the extent of almost enacting, by judicial verdict bars of limitation beyond which the trial shall not proceed and the arm of law shall lose its hold. In its zeal to protect the right to speedy trial of an accused, can the court devise and almost enact such bars of limitation though the Legislature and the statutes have not chosen to do so - is a question of far -reaching implications which has led to the constitution of this bench of seven -judge strength.
(2.)In criminal appeal no. 535/2000 the appellant was working as an electrical superintendent in the Mangalore City Corporation. For the check period 1 -5 -1961 to 25 -8 -1987, he was found to have amassed assets disproportionate to his known sources of income. Charge -sheet accusing him of offences under Section 13(1)(e) read with Section 13(2) of the Prevention of Corruption Act, 1988 was filed on 15 -3 -1994. The accused appeared before the special court and was enlarged on bail on 6 -6 -1994. Charges were framed on 10 -8 -1994 and the case proceeded for trial on 8 -11 -1994. However, the trial did not commence. On 23 -2 -1999 the learned special judge who was seized of the trial directed the accused to be acquitted as the trial had not commenced till then and the period of two years had elapsed which obliged him to acquit the accused in terms of the directions of this Court in Raj Deo Sharma v. State of Bihar1 [(1998) 7 SCC 507] (hereinafter, Raj Deo Sharma -I). The State of Karnataka through the D.S.P. Lokayukta, Mangalore preferred an appeal before the High Court putting in issue the acquittal of the accused. The learned single judge of the High Court, vide the impugned order, allowed the appeal, set aside the order of acquittal and remanded the case to the trial court, forming an opinion that a case charging an accused with corruption was an exception to the directions made in Raj Deo Sharma -I as clarified by this Court in Raj Deo Sharma (II) v. State of Bihar1 [(1999) 7 SCC 604]. Strangely enough, the High Court not only condoned a delay of 55 days in filing the appeal against acquittal by the state but also allowed the appeal itself -both without even issuing notice to the accused. The aggrieved accused has filed this appeal by special leave. Similar are the facts in all the other appeals. Shorn of details, suffice it to say that in all the appeals the accused persons who were facing corruption charges, were acquitted by the special courts for failure of commencement of trial in spite of lapse of two years from the date of framing of the charges and all the state appeals were allowed by the High Court without noticing the respective accused persons.
(3.)The appeals came up for hearing before a bench of three learned judges who noticed the common ground that the appeals in the High Court were allowed by the learned judge thereat without issuing notice to the accused and upon this ground alone, of want of notice, the appeals hereat could be allowed and the appeals before the High Court restored to file for fresh disposal after notice to the accused but it was felt that a question arose in many more and therefore the appeals should be heard on their merits. In the order dated September 19, 2000, the bench of three learned judges stated:
"The question is whether the earlier judgments of this Court, principally, in Common Cause v. Union of India [JT 1996 (6) SC 701], Common Cause v. Union of India [(1996) 6 SCC 775], Raj Deo Sharma v. State of Bihar [JT 1998 (7) SC 1 = (1998) 7 SCC 507] and Raj Deo Sharma (II) v. State of Bihar [JT 1999 (7) SC 317], would apply to prosecutions under the Prevention of Corruption Act and other economic offences.
Having perused the judgments aforementioned, we are of the view that these appeals should be heard by a Constitution Bench. We take this view because we think that it may be necessary to sythesise the various guidelines and directions issued in these judgments. We are also of the view that a Constitution Bench should consider whether time limits of the nature mentioned in some of these judgments can, under the law, be laid down."