The basics of criminal trial in India – from charge to conviction (or acquittal)!

This article is a part of series “law for the layman” that I am writing, wherein we have tried to make law as understandable as possible to anyone who finds himself in the throes of a trial as an accused/complainant or a witness. 

ImageCriminal Trial – the Procedure is governed by the CrPC, 1973, there are three basic stages to it, which normally occur in the same order viz. Investigation (where evidences are to be collected), Inquiry (A judicial proceeding where judge ensures for himself before going on trial, that there are reasonable grounds to believe the person to be guilty) & TRIAL. The term ‘Trial’ has not been defined in the CrPC, however is commonly understood to mean – a judicial proceeding where evidences are allowed to be proved or disproved, and guilt of a person is adjudged leading to a acquittal (an exoneration from charge) or a conviction.

Trials are normally divided into Warrants Trial & a Summons Trial. We have taken warrants trial to be the model here, as the same is employed in most offences (see Theft/Rape/Murder/Kidnapping/Cheating etc.). A Summons trial is an abridged form of warrants trial, where some proceedings are omitted to ensure swift process but at the same time basic postulates of fair trial are retained. Warrants trial is done for offences punishable with imprisonment exceeding 2 years, summons for other minor offences.

A Criminal Trial starts with framing of charges, if a person is not discharged – trial begins, by framing a charge (nothing but a specific accusation against the accused) and reading and explaining it to him (So that he knows what he is to face). After framing of charges the judge proceeds to take the ‘plea of guilt’ which is an opportunity to the accused to acknowledge that he pleads guilty and does not wish to contest the case. Here the judge’s responsibility is onerous, he has to, first ensure – plea of guilt is free and voluntary (why is a man speaking against his interest?) secondly – he has also to ensure that if there had been no plea of guilt – was the prosecution version if unrebutted – would have led to conviction. If both the requirements are met – then judge can record and accept plea of guilt and convict the accused after listening to him on sentence.

After plea of guilt is taken, if accused pleads ‘not guilty’ or court does not accept his plea of guilt, trial moves on – prosecutor then explains to the court the basic outline of the case and what evidence he proposes to lead in order to prove the same. He asks the court to summon witnesses so that court can record their evidence. As the prosecution has to start leading evidence to bring home the offence to the accused – it is said ‘The Burden of Proof lies on the prosecution’. The basic rule is whoever asserts the affirmative of an issue has the burden to prove facts on which the accused’s liability depends, and this burden of proof – is not a light burden – the prosecution has to prove that the accused is guilty beyond reasonable doubts. This is primarily for two reasons:

i) A person’s (accused’s) life and liberty is involved.

ii) and the state with the investigative machinery at its disposal is sufficiently armed to get good evidence which a individual would not have.

So now since the BOP is on the prosecution it has to prove facts which incriminate the accused. When witnesses for the prosecution are called they are first examined by the prosecutor – then cross examined by the defence advocate, and with the leave of the court prosecutor can again examine to clarify the loopholes exposes during cross.

After the prosecution has led its evidence – court asks the accused to himself enter the witness box (not to give evidence) but in order to explain circumstances that appeared against him – he has given an opportunity to give personal explanations. This is a remarkable manifestation of Audi Alteram Partem where the court makes a direct dialogue with the accused to know what his take is. This is not a chance to the court to beguile or cross examine the accused. Any answer given by accused is not to be used as evidence against him but the court may take into consideration to adjudge overall trustworthiness of the case. This is done u/s 311 CrPC, after the examination. If the court feels that prosecution has not successfully brought home the guilt – it may acquit – else if it feels that they have sufficiently discharged their burden – then it asks defence if it seeks to lead evidence, and the same cycle again. Now after evidence from both sides is recorded. Parties then make arguments on the same, and in the end court pronounces the judgment.

In case of Acquittal – the accused is set at liberty (if in custody). In case of conviction – the punitive dilemma begins as Justice Krishna Iyer called it – the Court has to fix another hearing to decide on the quantum of sentence. Here the prosecution as well as the defence can lead evidences that would have been fatal earlier, in order to aggravate or mitigate the punishment. Previous criminal background/Bad Character/Reprehensible Motive/Cruel/Diabolical Conduct – may aggravate the sentence on the other hand – /First Time offender/No premeditation/Capable of Reform are some factors which move the court to give a lenient sentence.

Here the court gives equal leverage to the ‘Crime’ as well as the ‘Criminal’. Earlier the gravity of crime used to be the sole criteria – however in recent times, there has been a definitive shift of focus from crime to criminal which manifests growing importance of reformation as the end of punishment. The Court at this stage would also consider whether the accused is entitled to the benefit of probation or admonition.

2 thoughts on “The basics of criminal trial in India – from charge to conviction (or acquittal)!

  1. Sir please inform how can i transfer an ipc376 case to high court directly from lower(sessions court) &the case is in initial trial stage in sessions court???


    1. No, the trial has to be first completed before the sessions court. If you are apprehensive of getting a fair trial in the sessions court and have strong reasons to do so, you can apply for a transfer before the High Court


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s