Nanavati and jury trials
By Bibek Debroy in The Indian Express
Not too many people remember Kawas Maneckshaw Nanavati now. After all, Nanavati died, almost unnoticed in Canada in 2003. He was tried for shooting Prem Ahuja, his wife Sylvia’s lover in 1959.
There was a jury trial and the Greater Bombay Sessions Court acquitted him with a verdict of 8-1. The Sessions Judge was dissatisfied and referred the case to the High Court, which thought the presiding judge had misled the jury. The High Court sentenced Nanavati to life imprisonment and this was upheld by the Supreme Court in 1961. However, Nanavati was eventually pardoned and released. The Nanavati case was responsible for abolition of jury trials in India in 1960. It was the last trial by a jury.
The presiding judge misleading the jury wasn’t the reason for abolition of jury trials. Since the Nanavati case was extensively reported in the media, it was felt that the jury was influenced by the publicity. There is quite a bit of cross-country literature on the pros and cons of jury trials versus bench trials, with distinctions sometimes drawn between civil and criminal cases. Most common law jurisdictions (Israel is an exception) have some form of jury trial and several civil law jurisdictions too. Notice the time-line of the Nanavati case – crime committed in 1959 and eventual decision in 1961.
Today, such a time-line for adjudication is impossible. The backlog is too large and pace too slow. There are justifiable reasons for scepticism about trial by media and influence of publicity. (For Nanavati, it was mostly “Blitz”.) Witness media blitz created over Priyadarshini Mattoo, Jessica Lall and Nitish Katara. However, there is one point that doesn’t figure in discussions of pros and cons of jury trials vis-a-vis bench trials. There are several things that can be done to reduce backlog and ensure speedy trials, some of which are on Moily’s agenda of judicial reform. But one problem is absence of continuous trials. Since jury trials involve getting a bunch of people together for a finite time, it is inevitable that trials are continuous. It is no coincidence that there is correlation between scrapping of jury trials and prolonging of cases. (Japan introduced jury trials as recently as 2004.) There are ways of ensuring juries aren’t unduly influenced, with adequate safeguards. Since no one has figured out a sensible way of ensuring continuous trials, notwithstanding its mention in agendas of judicial reform, should we ask whether that 1960 decision of abolition of jury trials was a mistake?