The question that people are asking after the verdict in the Salman Khan hit and run case is--why has the convict been granted bail that too within hours of sentencing him guilty. This is despite the fact that the verdict itself has taken 13 long years to come by. Does the law of the land work differently for VIPs and celebrities when compared to the common man?
Unfortunately, recent decisions and the subsequent bail in the case of VIPs like Jayalalitha, Lalu Prasad, A Raja, Kanimozhi and now Salman Khan leads one to believe that the justice system in India works differently for the rich, the powerful and celebrities. The message that goes out is that if you are rich enough to employ the services of top lawyers in the country, then it is very likely that you will not have to go to jail or even if you go to jail, it will be only for a brief period. The legal eagles will help you to firstly, exploit every loophole in the Indian criminal justice system to delay your case as much as possible. And secondly, if convicted and sentenced, bail will be secured at the earliest. The VIP is then free for several more years while the case winds its way slowly through different courts as part of the appeal process.
"Why do criminal trials take so long and why are there so many appeal opportunities at different stages? "
Thus in the Salman Khan case, agitation over the appropriate section of law to be imposed took the case in interim appeal from Sessions Court to High Court to Supreme Court. Further, the trial after progressing for years in the Magistrates Court was transferred to the Sessions Court for a new trial again on the question of the section of law. In the process 13 years went by.
In the Jayalalitha case, trial was challenged at every stage. Lawyers filed nearly 250 interlocutory applications before the single bench then appeal to division bench of the High Court and then further appeal to the Supreme Court. John Michael Cunha, Special Judge who delivered the landmark decision in the Jayalalitha case in his verdict recorded,
"[T]he accused moved applications after applications before this Court at every stage of the proceedings raising different interlocutory issues purportedly to vindicate different facets of their right to a free and fair trial and virtually every order passed by this Court was carried in Appeal or Revision to the Hon'ble High Court of Karnataka and then to the Hon'ble Supreme Court of India resulting in considerable delay in the progress of the case."
Thus, Jayalalithas case took 18 years for a decision. Sadly, the culprit was in jail only for 21 days after which the apex court was gratuitous enough to grant her bail as her lawyer, the celebrated Fali Nariman, cited reasons of her ill health and being disadvantaged in filing appeal if she was in jail.
No common man in India can even imagine taking a case to High Court and then Supreme Court multiple times. That is where being a VIP helps because the best legal minds are helping you in manipulating the system. They take you to the highest legal forums available, advance the best possible arguments and explore and use every possible legally available remedy however vexatious they may be to help you. Sadly there is no parity before law. The rich are certainly at an advantage.
"[I]t is the long delays and the subsequent bail in such cases that takes away the 'justice' element out of our criminal justice system."
Now why was Salman given bail within hours of the conviction? To be fair here, the interim bail given to Salman for two days cannot be faulted as it is the right of every person convicted to know the reason for being sent to jail. In this case Salman was only orally told about his conviction and sentence. The full copy of the order was not given. This was the basis for the Mumbai High Court Judge to give the interim stay which otherwise would have been prejudicial to Salman.
But here again, it is only because it was Salman who was able to fly in the famous lawyer Harish Salve from Delhi, and because Salve has the stature to mention a case before a judge of the High Court and press for an interim bail highlighting a technical fault that bail was secured. If it was any other person with any other lawyer, the response of the High Court in all probability would have been, "What is your hurry? Wait for the copy of the lower court's order and then apply for bail."
Of course, it would be unfair not to appreciate the judiciary in boldly coming out with exemplary punishment even in the case of celebrities like Salman, Jayalalitha and Lalu. They have not shown any leniency based on the status of the accused. Prosecution and investigation also needs to be commended for finally securing conviction despite the brute tactics applied by the defence side. However, it is the long delays and the subsequent bail in such cases that takes away the 'justice' element out of our criminal justice system. Somehow justice does not seem to have been administered.
Why does our judicial system work like this? Why do criminal trials take so long and why are there so many appeal opportunities at different stages? Why should the bail system operate with such wide discretion in the hands of judges? The system on the ground with mounting case pendency in every court and the sluggish pace of justice has made our criminal justice system more or less dysfunctional. Needless to say, drastic reforms are urgently required.