Law Simplified: Navigating the Stages of a Criminal Trial in India (as per CrPC)
Nov. 10, 2023 • Abhinav Raizada
The Indian criminal justice system is a multifaceted and intricate structure, designed to uphold the rule of law, protect the rights of individuals, and ensure that justice is served. At its core, the criminal trial is a comprehensive and multi-stage process that spans from the initiation of a complaint to the final judgment. This blog embarks on an exploration of the various stages of a criminal trial in India, offering a comprehensive understanding of the procedural intricacies, accompanied by landmark judgments that have significantly influenced the Indian legal landscape.
A criminal trial in India follows different stages: Pre-trial, Trial, and Post-trial stages.
Cognizable and non-cognizable offenses
Cognizable offenses are those offenses in which the police can arrest the accused without a warrant. These are offenses that are punished with imprisonment of three years or more and are considered to be more serious in nature. In such cases, the police are required to register an FIR under section 154 of the Cr.PC. (Section 2(c))
A non-cognizable offense is an offense of a less serious nature. In these cases, the police have no authority to arrest a person without a warrant. (Section 2(l))
First Information Report (FIR) and Complaint
The criminal trial process in India commences with the lodging of a complaint by the victim or a third party. This complaint may be oral or in writing and is meticulously documented as a First Information Report (FIR) by the police. The FIR includes crucial information, such as the date, time, location, and nature of the offense, as well as the names of both the accused and the complainant. This initial stage is pivotal as it serves as the inception of the legal process.
The First Information Report (FIR), often termed the "genesis of criminal proceedings," is a cornerstone of the criminal justice system in India. It not only initiates the legal process but also provides a clear record of the initial facts and circumstances surrounding the alleged crime. It acts as a guiding document throughout the trial and is frequently referred to by the prosecution and the defense. The primary object of the FIR from the point of view of the informant is to set the criminal law in motion and from the point of view of the investigating authorities to obtain information about alleged criminal activity to be able to take suitable steps to trace and bring to book the guilty.
Lalita Kumari v. Government of Uttar Pradesh (2014) 
In this case, the Supreme Court of India addressed the issue of compulsory FIR registration. The court held that registration of an FIR is mandatory in cognizable offenses, and the police must do so promptly and without delay, ensuring the rights of both the accused and the complainant are upheld. The judgment underscored the significance of the FIR in the criminal trial process, affirming its pivotal role in ensuring justice and fairness.
On the other hand, a ‘Complaint’ means any allegation made orally or in writing to a Magistrate, with a view to his taking action under this code, that some person (whether known or unknown) has committed an offense, but does not include a police report. (Section 2(d) of Cr.PC)
When a complaint is received by the magistrate, he may proceed to take cognizance of the offense and record the statements of both the complainant and the witnesses under Section 200 of the Cr.PC. The magistrate can also direct an investigation under section 202. Later, if he finds that there is no sufficient ground for proceeding further with the case it is dismissed under Section 203. Otherwise, the magistrate may proceed and issue process under section 204.
Mohd. Yousuf v. Afaq Jahan(2006) 
The word ‘Complaint’ has a very wide meaning; no particular form is prescribed. There is no particular format for complaints. Nomenclature is also inconsequential. A petition addressed to the Magistrate containing an allegation that an offence has been committed, and ending with a prayer that the culprits be suitably dealt with, is a complaint.
Following the registration of an FIR, the police initiate the investigation. This phase involves the systematic collection of evidence, interviews with witnesses, and the acquisition of relevant documents. If necessary, the police may arrest the accused if there is sufficient evidence or if the crime is non-bailable. The investigation is conducted under the supervision of a senior police officer and must be completed within a reasonable timeframe.
The investigation stage plays a critical role in building the prosecution's case. The police must collect evidence diligently, ensuring the chain of custody and authenticity of the evidence. A thorough investigation is the cornerstone of a fair trial and is essential for both the prosecution and the defense in building their cases.
Section 157 of Cr.PC provides how the investigation is to be conducted where the commission of a cognizable offense is suspected and authorizes an officer-in-charge of a police station not to investigate if he considers that there is no sufficient ground for such investigation.
The investigation of an offence consists of:
a) Proceeding to the place of offense;
b) Ascertainment of the facts and circumstances of the case;
c) Discovery and arrest of suspected offender;
d) Collection of evidence relating to the commission of the offense which may consist of
(i) the examination of various persons, including the accused, and the reduction of the statements into writing;
(ii) the search of places or seizure of things considered necessary for the investigation or trial.
Arrest and Bail
If the offense committed is cognizable, the police can arrest the accused without any warrant. But in cases of non-cognizable offenses, there must be the prior approval of the magistrate.
The code has not defined the term ‘arrest’. Every deprivation of liberty or physical restraint is not arrest. Only the deprivation of liberty by legal authority or at least by apparent legal authority in a professionally competent and adept manner amounts to arrest. As per Section 167 of Cr.PC, the police should produce the arrested person before the nearest magistrate within 24 hours of his arrest.
The code enumerates many sections for the arrest which are given in Chapter 5:
Section 41- When police may arrest without warrant.
Section 42- Arrest on refusal to give name and address.
Section 43- Arrest by private person and procedure for such arrest.
Section 44- Arrest by Magistrate.
The code also defines the rights of the arrested person and the procedure of arrest in the same chapter.
In cases where the accused is arrested, they retain the right to apply for bail. The court may grant bail based on several factors, such as the gravity of the offense, the likelihood of the accused fleeing, and the potential danger they pose to society. Bail is a pivotal aspect of the criminal trial process, as it ensures that individuals are not unduly detained before trial.
‘Bail’ has not been defined under the Cr.PC. It has been defined in the Law Lexicon as ‘security for the appearance of the accused person, on giving which, he is released pending trial or investigation’. The word ‘Bail’ means to set a person arrested or imprisoned on security being taken of his appearance in the court on a particular day. Chapter XXXIII of the code talks about Provisions as to Bail and Bonds and Section 436 defines ‘In what cases Bail to be taken’.
The right to bail is enshrined in Article 21, which guarantees the right to personal liberty. Bail serves as a safeguard to prevent the unjustified pretrial detention of individuals. It is a legal mechanism that balances the interests of the accused and society at large.
Vaman Narain Ghiya v. State of Rajasthan(2009) 
In this case, the concept and philosophy of bail were discussed by the Supreme Court; ‘Bail’ remains an undefined term in CrPC. Nowhere else has the term been statutorily defined. Conceptually, it continues to be understood as a right to assertion of freedom against the State imposing restraints. Since the UN Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, to which India is a signatory, the concept of bail has found a place within the scope of Human Rights.
Upon the completion of the investigation, the police prepare a charge sheet, also known as a charge sheet or final report. This document contains all the evidence gathered during the investigation and is submitted to the court. It includes details about the accused, the offense, the witnesses involved, other materials and documents, and the findings and conclusions of the officer, forming the bedrock of the trial.
The Charge sheet (Section 173) is a comprehensive document that encapsulates the prosecution's case against the accused. It is a formal presentation of the evidence and facts collected during the investigation. The charge sheet is a vital reference for the court, the prosecution, and the defense as they navigate the trial proceedings. A charge therefore is not an accusation in the abstract, but a concrete one. In the words of the Privy Council, “the necessity of a system of written accusation specifying a definite criminal offense is of the criminal procedure”.
Framing of Charges
After the chargesheet is filed, the court reviews the evidence and formally frames the charges against the accused. The accused is then required to plead guilty or not guilty to these charges. If the accused pleads guilty, the trial may conclude swiftly with a conviction and sentencing. However, if the accused pleads not guilty, the trial proceeds to the next stage.
The framing of charges (Section 288) is a pivotal moment in the trial, as it formally outlines the allegations against the accused. The court must ensure that the charges are clear and specific, allowing the accused to understand the case they must meet. This stage sets the tone for the entire trial. The whole objective of framing of charge is to enable the defense to concrete its attention on the case that it has to meet, and if, therefore, the charge is framed in such a vague manner, that the necessary ingredients of an omission in the charge-sheet on the conviction of the accused will depend upon the merits of each case.
Examination of Witnesses
The examination of witnesses is a pivotal stage in a criminal trial. Both the prosecution and the defense have the opportunity to call witnesses and present evidence to support their respective cases. The examination of witnesses includes chief examination, cross-examination, and re-examination, all of which serve to test the credibility and reliability of the witnesses' testimonies. Witness testimonies often form the crux of a criminal trial. The process of examining witnesses is a meticulous and structured one. The goal is to unearth the truth and ensure that witnesses are not subjected to coercion or influence.
Arguments and Evidence
After the examination of witnesses, the prosecution and defense present their arguments and evidence to the court. The prosecution must establish the guilt of the accused beyond a reasonable doubt, while the defense's objective is to create reasonable doubt or provide an alternative explanation for the alleged offense. This stage is a battleground where the legal skills of the lawyers come to the fore.
The presentation of arguments and evidence is a dynamic and often intense stage of the trial. Legal acumen and thorough preparation are essential for both sides as they strive to convince the court of their perspective. The court must carefully evaluate the evidence presented and assess its admissibility and relevance.
Once all evidence and arguments have been presented, the prosecution and defense make their closing arguments. This is the final opportunity for both sides to summarize their cases, highlight key points, and persuade the court to rule in their favor. The closing arguments are the culmination of the legal proceedings. Lawyers must distill complex legal arguments and evidence into persuasive narratives that can sway the court. These closing statements often leave a lasting impression on the judge and significantly influence the trial's outcome.
After the closing arguments, the court delivers its judgment. The judgment can take various forms, such as acquittal, conviction, or a combination of both. If the accused is found guilty, a separate sentencing hearing may be conducted to determine the appropriate punishment. The judgment is the pinnacle of the trial. It represents the court's considered decision based on the evidence and legal arguments presented. The judgment must be clear, reasoned, and just, ensuring that justice is not only done but is seen to be done.
Bachan Singh v. State of Punjab(1980) 
In this landmark case, the Supreme Court of India laid down guidelines for awarding the death penalty, emphasizing the 'rarest of rare' doctrine as a prerequisite for imposing capital punishment. This judgment marked a significant milestone in the Indian legal landscape by providing clarity and consistency in the application of the death penalty.
If the accused is convicted, the court then proceeds to the sentencing stage. The sentencing hearing involves considering factors such as the severity of the offense, the accused's criminal record, and any mitigating or aggravating circumstances. The court then imposes an appropriate punishment, which may include imprisonment, fines, probation, or community service.
The sentencing stage is an exercise in justice tempered with mercy. It requires the court to weigh the gravity of the offense, the culpability of the accused, and the principles of reformation and deterrence. The goal is to impose a punishment that is proportionate and just.
In India, both the prosecution and the defense have the right to appeal the judgment of the trial court. Appeals can be made to higher courts, and the appellate process involves a reexamination of the evidence and legal arguments presented in the trial court. This is a critical safeguard to ensure that justice is served and that errors or miscarriages of justice are corrected.
The right to appeal is a fundamental aspect of the legal system that ensures the robustness of justice. It allows for a fresh review of the case by a higher court, which may provide a different perspective or identify errors in the trial process.
K.M. Nanavati v. State of Maharashtra(1961) 
This case brought to the forefront the power of the High Court to hear criminal appeals and the significance of the appellate process in ensuring justice. The judgment emphasized the importance of a fair and transparent appeals system to rectify miscarriages of justice.
In addition to appeals, there are other post-conviction remedies available to both the accused and the prosecution. These remedies include filing review petitions, seeking a presidential pardon, or approaching the High Court or the Supreme Court for relief in certain circumstances. The criminal justice system recognizes that errors can occur, and individuals may be wrongfully convicted. Post-conviction remedies provide a mechanism to rectify such errors and offer relief to those who have been unjustly sentenced.
The stages of a criminal trial in India are designed to ensure a fair and just process for both the accused and the victim. Each stage serves a specific purpose and contributes to the overall integrity of the trial. The Indian legal system places a strong emphasis on the principle of "innocent until proven guilty," ensuring that all individuals accused of a crime are entitled to a proper defense and a fair trial. While the criminal trial process in India is comprehensive, it is not without its challenges and shortcomings. Delays in the justice system, overburdened courts, and issues related to witness protection are just a few of the problems that need continued attention and reform.
Nevertheless, understanding the stages of a criminal trial in India is a crucial step in appreciating the complexities of the country's legal system and the efforts made to uphold the principles of justice and accountability. Landmark judgments play a significant role in shaping the legal landscape and ensuring that the legal system evolves to meet the needs of a dynamic society.
In the realm of Indian criminal law, the stages of a trial are not merely a procedural formality but a dynamic process that balances the rights of the accused with the imperatives of justice. As the legal landscape continues to evolve, the principles of fairness, transparency, and accountability remain at the heart of the Indian criminal trial, ensuring that justice is not only served but is perceived to be served by all.
 Section 154, Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973
 Dr. Ashok Jain, II Criminal Law 19 (Ascent Publication, New Delhi, 5th ed., 2021)
 AIR 2012 SC 1515
 Section 2(d), Code of Criminal Procedure,1973
 1 SCC 627
 Section 2(h), Code of Criminal Procedure,1973
 Dr. Ashok Jain, II Criminal Law 136 (Ascent Publication, New Delhi, 5th ed., 2021)
 Dr. Ashok Jain, II Criminal Law 136 (Ascent Publication, New Delhi, 5th ed.,2021)
 Constitution of India, 1950
 2 SCC 281
 Section 173, Code of Criminal Procedure,1973
 Dr. Ashok Jain, II Criminal Law 201 (Ascent Publication, New Delhi, 5th ed., 2021)
 Subramania, 5 CWN 866
 Bhim Sen AIR, 1976 SC 281
 AIR 1980 SC 898
 Section 235, Code of Criminal Procedure,1973
 1962 AIR 605
Disclaimer: The author affirms that this article is an entirely original work, never submitted for publication in any journal, blog, or other publication avenue. Any unintentional resemblance to any previously published material is purely coincidental. This article is solely for academic and scholarly discussion. The author takes personal responsibility for any potential infringement of intellectual property rights belonging to any individuals, organizations, governments, or institutions.
About the Author: Abhinav Raizada is a fourth-year B.A.LL.B student at the Faculty of Law, The Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda, Vadodara.