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[Supreme Court] Harsher Punishments Under a New Law Cannot Be Imposed Retrospectively (Article 20), But Lighter/Reduced Punishments in Such Law Can Benefit the Accused

Introduction

The Supreme Court (‘SC’) in the matter of A.K. Sarkar vs. State of West Bengal[i], held that an individual cannot be punished for an act that was not considered as a crime when it was committed (‘ex post facto laws’). It observed that a. 20 of the Constitution of India (‘Constitution’) restricts Courts from imposing a harsher punishment for a crime than what was available when the crime was committed. However, there is no bar on applying a lighter punishment under a new law for the same offence.

Issue

In light of the Prevention of Food Adulteration Act, 1954 (‘PFA Act’), having been repealed and replaced by the Food Safety and Standards Act, 2006 (‘FSS Act’), wherein the latter law prescribed lighter sentences/punishments, can a person who allegedly committed an offence in the year 2000, benefit from such lighter punishment?

Brief Facts

  • In the year 2000, the appellant was inspected by the food inspector who found that the confectionaries at the appellant’s shop lacked proper labelling. Though there was no adulteration found, the packaging failed to show the manufacturer’s complete address and date of manufacturing. This contravened r. 32(c) and (f) of the Prevention of Food Adulteration Rules, 1955, prescribed under the PFA Act.

  • The trial court convicted the appellant (and other persons) imposing a sentence of imprisonment of six months along with a fine. Though the Sessions Court rejected the appeal against conviction, the High Court reduced the sentence from six months to three months during the revision proceedings.

Held

  • The SC held that there was no room for any doubt regarding the factual matrix of the matter as to whether the appellant was guilty of the offence or not.

  • The SC noted that the sole issue to be adjudicated was concerning the imprisonment sentence of the Appellants, and this appeal seeks a sentence reduction, requesting a fine only, which is permissible under the current law.

  • The SC further observed that various precedents of this Court have established that a. 20 of the Constitution protects individuals from harsher punishments for past actions and from sentences exceeding what was legal at the time of the offense. However, a. 20 of the Constitution does not prevent courts from imposing a lighter punishment if a new law offers a lesser penalty for the same crime.

  • S. 52 of the FSS Act, which is presently in force, provides for a monetary penalty only which may extend to three lakh rupees. It has replaced the erstwhile provisions of the PFA Act, which provided for imprisonment and fines as a consequence of contravention. Considering this, while the SC upheld the conviction, it modified the punishment to an imposition of a fine alone, removing the imprisonment mandate.

  • The SC placed reliance on the case of T. Barai v. Henry Ah Hoe[ii], where the SC had ruled that beneficial amendments to the law could be applied retroactively to ongoing court cases, even if the amendment was not in place when the offence had occurred.

Conclusion

The SC clarified that while a. 20 of the Constitution prohibits the imposition of a higher punishment, it does not hold back the lower courts from imposing a lesser punishment under a new law applicable to the same offense. In other words, if a new law with a lesser penalty is introduced for a particular offense, individuals can be sentenced accordingly, even if the original offence had occurred before the enactment of the new law. This interpretation ensures that individuals are not subjected to the severe penalties which have been removed or reduced by the legislation itself, in cases where the adjudication has not been completed. This interpretation also derives support from the rationale that punishments which have been reduced or discontinued by the legislature in its own wisdom, should not be meted out to persons who are still facing adjudication. This commonly happens where statutes are decriminalized either in cases where the provisions are found to be too harsh or where the remedy needs to be modified to make it more appropriate. What happens, though, in cases where the adjudication has been completed and the accused persons are already incurring the punishment, is worthy of debate.





End Notes

[i] MANU/SC/0181/2024

[ii] (1983) 1 SCC 177





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

 

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