With 284 accused in a 70,000-page charge sheet, the Bhushan Power and Steel case projects an incomprehensible duration, even by the lax standards of India’s law courts.
The case presents a challenge bigger than anything yet encountered by Indian judiciary. Bhushan Power and Steel defaulted on a Rs 47,700 crore loan in 2017. Last week Punjab National Bank accused the company of committing a Rs 3,815 crore scam, where it “misappropriated bank funds” and “manipulated books of accounts” to raise funds from a banking consortium.
And with 284 accused in a 70,000-page charge sheet, the case projects an impossible task that will take an incomprehensible time, even by the lax standards of India’s law courts.
With 284 accused in a 70,000-page charge sheet, the BSL case projects an impossible task.
The accused and their counsels will nearly make up 600 people who will get their attendance registered in court. That itself would amount to nearly five hours of court time. The numbers are outrageous, making this a historic test of nuances and their handling by Indian judiciary and law enforcement.
A case bigger than any in history
The reason for such ‘out of the ordinary’ numbers is the mammoth charge sheet filed by the Serious Fraud Investigation Office (SFIO). SFIO is the investigation arm of the Ministry of Corporate Affairs (MCA). It names 284 individuals and entities in its investigation.
The reason for the sizeable charge sheet is the many statements of witnesses and opinions of experts.
The reason for the sizeable charge sheet is the many statements of witnesses and opinions of experts, which makes it so voluminous. The massiveness of the judiciary’s task is comparable to the 2G scam case which went on for seven years.
A lawyer who was the counsel for the main accused in 2G case told The Print, “It was a two-lakh page chargesheet, but there were only 16 accused persons. Despite having the most efficient sessions judge, the case took seven years to finish.”
The agency will have to supply each accused a hard copy of the charge sheet which will amount to over two crore pages.
Not just that, with so many accused, the agency will have to supply each one of them with a hard copy of the charge sheet, a mandatory process under section 207 of the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC). This will amount to over two crore pages in itself.
Why are there so many accused?
The reason who SFIO named 284 accused in its charge sheet is in cognizance with the Supreme Court’s guidelines that dictate that ‘all those involved in alleged offences be charged’. But how many of the accused are to stand trial is up to the court.
Supreme Court’s guidelines dictate that ‘all those involved in alleged offences be charged’, but how many stand trial is up to the court.
Senior counsel Hiten Venagaonkar, representing SFIO in the IL&FS case, opines that the key to how long a case takes depends on the number of witnesses instead of how many are accused.
“The Supreme Court has made it clear that if there is a case against a person, charge sheet has to be filed against him. The prosecution cannot decide who to drop and who to include,” Venagaonkar said. “If the witnesses are a few in number then the trial doesn’t take long.”
MCA’s senior counsel in the Bhushan Steel case Sanjay Shourie believes the large number of accused will not be problematic, “The case is being heard by a special court. It’s a strong case where the role of individuals is well-defined.”
How the scale might delay the trial?
A senior counsel representing some of the accused in the Bhushan Steel matter thinks the case will take a long time to conclude, and blames it on the SFIO, “By arraying so many accused, the agency has ensured that the trial may not finish in the lifetime of the present lawyers and the accused persons.”
Comparisons can be drawn with the 1993 Mumbai bomb blasts case which had a charge sheet of more than 10,000 pages, and first leg of trial in TADA (Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act) court convicted 100 accused in 2006.
Economic offences have lengthy trials because prosecutions rely on documentary evidence.
As per experts, the nature of probes in economic offences is a key factor in how lengthy the trial might take, as prosecutions primarily rely on documentary evidence.
The charge sheet length is more than double of the 32,000-page charge sheet filed in IL&FS case on subsidiary IFIN. Venagaonkar continues, “Economic offences are based on documents. If one document goes missing or is misplaced it could delay the trial.”
Criminal trials in economic offences generally take more time that other similar criminal cases due to the large number of witnesses and documentary evidence that has to be examined.
This burden of proof delays economic offence trials. And the sheer audacious charge sheet and number of accused involved makes the Bhushan Power and Steel case the biggest challenge for speedy delivery of justice by Indian courts.
By: Chitresh Sehgal, Senior Editor, Dkoding Media