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Supreme Court Clarifies Applicability of S. 106 of the Evidence Act & Exception 4 to S. 300 of the IPC in a Landmark Judgment

Introduction

In Anees v. The State Govt. of NCT[i], the Hon’ble Supreme Court of India (‘SC’) delivered a judgment on 03.05.2024 that highlights how s. 106 of the Evidence Act, 1872 (‘EA’) applies, what exactly constitutes a prima facie case, and the criteria for taking the benefit of the exception 4 to s. 300 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860 (‘IPC’). Additionally, this judgment explores how a Public Prosecutor (‘PP’) should conduct the cross-examination of a hostile witness and the duty of the trial court judge to actively participate in the proceedings rather than acting as a mere tape recorder during the examination of witnesses.

Brief Facts

  • The accused was married to the deceased namely, Saira in 1982 following Muslim rites and customs. They had a daughter named Shaheena, who was five years old at the time of the incident. On 29.12.1995 around 4:00 AM, the Delhi Police received information about the stabbing of a woman at the accused’s house, where the accused was found injured, and the wife was found lying in a pool of blood. Later, the deceased was declared brought dead to the hospital.

  • During the investigation it was revealed that the deceased and the accused had a troubled marital relationship. The conflicts between the couple eventually led to a quarrel, resulting in the wife’s death by stabbing with a knife. Their daughter, Shaheena, was the sole eyewitness to the incident, although she later turned hostile during the trial, asserting that two thieves intruded into their house and attacked her parents. The post-mortem report confirmed several stab wounds on the deceased’s body that were sufficient to cause death. The murder weapon i.e. the knife was found and seized by the Delhi Police and documented in a panchnama under s. 27 of the EA.

  • After examination of various witnesses, including family members, neighbours, doctors and police personnel, the trial court found the accused guilty of the offence punishable under s. 302 of the IPC and sentenced him to life imprisonment along with a fine of Rs. 5000/-. Later the appeal against this order was also dismissed by the Delhi High Court (‘HC’), affirming the judgement and conviction order passed by the trial court. Aggrieved by this, the accused approached the SC.

Held

  • The SC rejected the appeal and confirmed the conviction after an in-depth analysis of various aspects of criminal law. Firstly, the SC examined the principles of law governing the applicability of s. 106 of the EA, emphasizing that the burden of proof lay with the prosecution in criminal cases and did not automatically shift to the accused to prove a fact, especially within his knowledge. It was held that s. 106 does not alter the principle that the prosecution first needs to prove a prima facie case and the positive fact that certain facts are pre-eminently or exceptionally within the knowledge of the accused, which is an exception to s. 101 of the EA. The SC explained that s. 106 of the EA should be applied in criminal cases with care and caution and that s. 106 is applicable in exceptional criminal cases whereby the onus does not shift to the accused until a prima facie case is established by the prosecution. 

  • Next, the SC discussed what constitutes a prima facie case (foundational facts) in the context of s. 106 of the EA. Referring to the dictionary meaning of the Latin term, the SC noted that prima facie means at first sight’ or ‘based on first impression’. It was held that s. 106 of the EA would apply to cases where the prosecution has successfully proved facts from which a reasonable inference can be drawn regarding the guilt of the accused.

  • The SC then dealt with the discovery of the murder weapon and the conduct of the appellant which was held to be relevant under s. 8 of the EA and was admissible. Citing various judicial precedents in this context, the SC stated, with a note of caution, that the conduct of an accused may be a relevant fact under s. 8 of the EA, yet the same by itself cannot be a ground for his conviction, particularly for a serious offence such as murder.

  • In cross-examining a hostile witness, the SC stated that proper contradictions were not recorded during the cross-examination of the sole eyewitness. Even when contradictions were pointed out, they were not proved through the examination of the investigating officer (‘IO’). The SC stressed that the PP’s role extends beyond proving such contradictions and they must also challenge the accuracy, credibility, and overall value of the evidence presented during the examination-in-chief. Regarding the role of a trial court judge, it was emphasized that they cannot simply act as a tape recorder during witness examinations in murder trials. Instead, they must actively participate, ensuring that witnesses of tender age are not questioned in open court in the presence of the accused, but rather in accordance with the guidelines laid down by the SC in this regard.

  • The SC then analysed the application of exception 4 to s. 300 of the IPC, which was pleaded by the appellant in this case. It was noted that to avail the benefit of exception 4, four ingredients needed to be satisfied: (a) there was a sudden fight, (b) there was no premeditation, (c) the act was done in the heat of passion, and (d) the accused did not take undue advantage or act in a cruel or unusual manner. Considering the 12 knife stabs on the deceased’s body, the SC denied the appellant the benefit of this exception, stating that even if it were assumed that the deceased wife picked a fight with the appellant, the attack was cruel and of a disproportionate nature.

  • However, considering mitigating circumstances such as the appellant’s age after spending 11 years in custody, the SC granted liberty to the appellant to seek remission of the sentence from the State Government and accordingly, the State Government, on receiving a representation from the appellant to this effect, was directed to dispose the same within four weeks thereafter.

Our Analysis

This judgment is a landmark decision that meticulously scrutinizes every aspect of the EA and the CrPC. The SC’s analysis of s. 106 of the EA and exception 4 to s. 300 of the IPC are particularly noteworthy. The SC clarified that the burden of proof does not automatically shift to the accused and that the prosecution must first discharge its burden of establishing a prima facie case. This interpretation ensures that the accused is not unfairly burdened and upholds the principle of ‘innocent until proven guilty’. The SC’s discussion on what constitutes a prima facie case further crystallized this proposition.

The SC’s criticism of the trial court judge’s role during the cross-examination of the sole eyewitness who turned hostile is another significant aspect of this judgment. It was emphasized that a judge should not merely act as a recorder but ought to actively participate in the proceedings. This observation underscores the importance of a proactive judiciary in ensuring a fair trial, especially when the witness is a minor.

Further, the SC’s analysis of exception 4 to s. 300 of the IPC was insightful. Its refusal to grant the benefit of this exception to the appellant in this case, considering the cruel and disproportionate nature of the attack, sends a strong message about the limits of self-defence claims in cases of domestic violence.

Finally, the SC’s decision to allow the appellant to seek remission from the State Government, considering his age and the time spent in custody, shows a humane approach to justice. While confirming the conviction, the SC balanced the need for punishment with the principles of reform and rehabilitation. This decision will have a significant impact in the arena of criminal jurisprudence and it serves as a reminder of the multifaceted nature of justice in criminal trials.





End Note

[i] 2024 SCC OnLine SC 757





Authored by Siddharth Jha, Advocate at Metalegal Advocates. The views expressed are personal and do not constitute legal opinion.

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