The right to a speedy and just trial is granted to every human being, and the State does not discriminate against individuals on the basis of caste, religion, gender or place of birth. Article 21 of the Indian Constitution, which mentions the right to life and personal liberty, casts a duty upon the State to ensure that every accused person is guaranteed a speedy trial. In Maneka Gandhi v. Union of India, Justice Bhagwati observed that the expression ‘personal liberty’ has the widest amplitude and covers a number of rights which form the components of personal liberty of a man… Also, Article 39A of the Constitution gives the poor and destitute the right to legal aid and justice, which, in a country like India, is obligatory since a large part of the population does not have proper means to fight year-long cases and hire efficient lawyers.
Often, the judiciary of India is faced with a case where the fundamental rights of people are not merely questioned, but are grossly violated. One such case was Hussainara Khatoon v State of Bihar, which went on to become a landmark case on the right to speedy trial in India.
Background of Hussainara Khatoon v State of Bihar
The then prevailing laws in India permitted that, in case of commission of an offence, only the victim or a relative of the victim could file a petition before the court. Ignoring this mandate, a writ of habeas corpus came before the Supreme Court of India, filed by Pushpa Kapila Hingorani, along with her husband, Nirmal Hingorani. Kapila was an Indian lawyer who wanted to bring forth the conditions of the undertrial prisoners of Bihar, which had been highlighted earlier in an article published in the Indian Express in 1979. The article read about how the undertrial prisoners were serving in prison and under what conditions, with some of them serving for more than their actual span of imprisonment.
The writ of habeas corpus is instituted so that a person is protected from unlawful incarceration, i.e. the custody of such a person has to be proven in order to hold him/her further. The writ petition filed by Kapila was the first case of Public Interest Litigation in India (PIL), and it demanded the release of 17 undertrial prisoners, which were mentioned in the same article of 1979. The Bihar government was asked to file a revised chart which displayed the yearly break-up of undertrial prisoners after dividing them into two categories, viz. those having committed minor offences and those having committed major ones.
A significant number of men, women, and even children, were kept behind bars, awaiting their trials for years. The offences for which some of the prisoners were charged were trivial, and even after imposing proper charges, the punishment would not have been for more than a few months of imprisonment. As per the reports of the Bihar government, many prisoners that were held in the Central Jails of Patna, Ranchi and Muzaffarpur as undertrials, before their release, were regularly brought before magistrates but were remanded judicial custody over and over. To justify the pendency of so many cases, it was contended that about 10% of cases were pending because they required the opinions of experts, which was also delayed.
All arguments were found to be unsatisfactory by the Apex Court, and hence it ordered the release of the 17 undertrial prisoners whose names were mentioned by Mrs. Hingorani in her writ petition.
The Ruling of the Apex Court in Hussainara Khatoon v State of Bihar
The Supreme Court held that the detention of these prisoners was illegal as it completely violated the Fundamental Right to Life and Liberty under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution. The Court ordered the state government that in the case of prisoners having committed bailable offences, the government should appoint a lawyer at its own cost for making applications for bail and for opposing remand. Further, the state government, along with the high court, was required to furnish the details of the location and pendency of cases of the courts of magistrates as well as the courts of sessions in the state of Bihar up till 31st December 1978, and explain the delay in disposing of cases.
The Supreme Court understood the callousness of the legal justice system and the lack of money and resources poor people have to face, depriving them the access to justice. Justice Bhagwati held that the State cannot deny a person its Fundamental Right to a speedy trial on the ground that it lacks the adequate resources to improve the legal justice system and further the impetus of a speedy trial.
Article 21 of the Constitution is violated when an accused is not given a speedy and just trial, or is refused bail on unreasonable grounds, especially when one is indigent, or where an undertrial prisoner is forced to undergo imprisonment for a term longer than his/her actual punishment, or when the accused is poor and is not provided with free legal aid by the State.
Aftermath of Hussainara Khatoon Case
The case of Hussainara Khatoon revolutionised the Indian legal system. Hussainara was one of the six women undertrial prisoners that were held in the prisons of Bihar, hence the name. The case not only released the undertrial prisoners held in Bihar, but it triggered the release of 40,000 undertrial prisoners nationwide, which were held illegally despite their imprisonment terms being over. Since this case was the first PIL in the Indian legal system, Mrs. Hingorani came to be known as the ‘mother of PILs’. She, later on, revealed the Bhagalpur Blindings case, when the atrocities of some policemen, who had blinded 33 suspected offenders using needles and acid.
The case of Hussainara Khatoon v State of Bihar reveals the lacunae in the legal justice system of the country. Even though the right to a speedy trial is a Fundamental Right as envisaged in our Constitution, the case highlights the gross violation of the same, where undertrial prisoners had to endure long terms of imprisonment simply because the courts did not have time and resources to either acquit them or award them their proper sentence. Some of the prisoners were even innocent, yet they were not released and kept behind bars, violating basic human rights. Also, the bail system that exists in India has been biased towards poor people who are unable to afford the hefty costs of litigation. A legal system that cannot guarantee justice to the poor of the country cannot be said to be a fair and just system.
Since the case, about 40,000 undertrial prisoners were released, which shows that if a person is committed to the well-being of the country, he/she can do it and witness sweeping results. There is a need to have more and more lawyers like Mrs. Kapila Hingorani, so that the underprivileged and poor can have support when they raise their voice and are not suppressed by superior powers. More importantly, it is the duty of each citizen to be well-aware of his/her rights provided to him/her under the law, because vigilantibus non dormientibus jura subveniunt (the law assist those who are vigilant of their rights and not those who sleep over it).
 AIR 1978 SC 597.
 (1980) 1 SCC 98.
 The Constitution of India, art. 32, 226, means ‘you may have the body’.