Fundamental rights are considered to be the pillars of the Constitution of India. Article 20 is one of those fundamental rights enshrined in our Constitution, which deals with the protection of certain rights in case of conviction for offences. There are crimes committed by individuals as well as corporations in India, and article 20 plays the role of safeguarding their rights. The most important feature of this Fundamental Right is that it cannot be suspended even during an emergency period like Article 21.
Article 20 of the Constitution of India reads as:-
Article 20 (1) – Ex-Post Facto Laws:-
Clause (1) of Article 20 provides for safeguards to persons who are accused of having criminal offences. This article provides for a human rights framework to the criminal justice system.
Article 20(1) provides that no person can be convicted for the commission or omission for an act that does not amount to an offence by any law in force at the time when such an act was committed.
For example, in 2009, Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code which treated consensual homosexual conduct between same-sex adults as a criminal offence. In the year 2009, Section 377 was declared unconstitutional and but in 2013, the decision of the Delhi High Court was reversed by the Supreme Court of India. Therefore, consensual act between same-sex adults committed in 2011 would not be within the purview of Section 377. It will only apply for such acts after 2013. However, now, Section 377 stands no more. In 2018, Section 377 was again declared unconstitutional by the Apex Court, reversing its judgement from 2013.
Article 20 prohibits the application of laws, both retrospectively and prospectively. In simple words, when the legislature declares an act to be an offence or provides a penalty for an offence, it cannot make the law retrospective so as to affect the individuals who have committed the act before the enactment of that law.
The Constitution of India under Article 20(1) also provides that any person who is convicted of a crime should not receive penalty greater than what is provided in the law in force at the time of the act of offence.
Article 20 (2) – Immunity from Double Punishment –
This provision provides for another important right that – “no person shall be prosecuted and punished for the same offence more than once.” This means that if somebody commits an offence, then that person cannot be prosecuted or punished for that particular offence more than once. It safeguards the accused from facing multiple punishments or successive criminal proceedings for the same criminal offence. If any law provides for double punishments for the same offence, then it will be considered void.
It is to be specifically noted that Article 20 provides protection against double punishment only when the accused has been “prosecuted” and “punished” once. This provision does not prevent subsequent trials and conviction for another offence even if the two offences have something in common.
Article 20 (3) – Immunity from Self-Incrimination –
This provision also states that – “No person accused of any offence shall be compelled to be a witness against himself.” This provision protects the accused’s right against self-incrimination. An accused may give information based on his/her knowledge if he or she chooses to, but cannot be forced to be self-witness against himself/herself. Every accused has a right to fair trials.
The scope of this immunity has, prima facie, been expanded by the Apex Court by interpreting the word “witness” as inclusive of both oral and documentary evidence. Therefore, no person can be compelled to give any kind of evidence, which may reasonably support a prosecution against him/her. This “Right to silence” is not used in cases where the object or document is searched and seized from the possession of the accused. For the same reason, this provision does not restrict medical examination of the accused or the obtaining of thumb impressions or specimen signature.
Human Rights is the soul of our Constitution. Without these rights, our existence in society will be very difficult. These rights must not just be restricted to normal human beings but also to those who have committed crimes. Our Constitution has allowed people accused of crimes to get protection under the law so that they are not victimized and brutalized by enforcement agencies for pieces of evidence. A person in custody of any enforcement agency does not lose its right to his/her human and fundamental rights. Criminal administration of justice must be fair and reasonable and must give the accused the right to protection under the law. Therefore, Article 20 is undoubtedly an important provision of the Constitution of India.