Legal Blog: "Witnesses" and the Criminal Justice System : Role & Importance

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Saturday, January 15, 2011

"Witnesses" and the Criminal Justice System : Role & Importance

Justice Panchal
The Supreme Court through Justice J.M. Panchal, in Vikas Kumar Roorkewal vs State of Uttarkhand & Ors., has examined the role of witnesses in the criminal justice system. The Court has, inter alia, observed that the witnesses play an integral role in the dispensation of justice and protection of witnesses, through legislative measures, can go a long way in conducting a fair trial. The court observed as under;

14. The learned counsel for the petitioner has placed reliance on a decision of this Court in Himanshu Singh Sabharwal vs. State of M.P. and others (2008) 4 SCR 783, where this Court in paragraphs 14 and 15 has observed as under: -

"14. "Witnesses" as Benthem said: are the eyes and ears of justice. Hence, the importance and primacy of the quality of trial process. If the witness himself is incapacitated from acting as eyes and ears of justice, the trial gets putrefied and paralysed, and it no longer can constitute a fair trial. The incapacitation may be due to several factors like the witness being not in a position for reasons beyond control to speak the truth in the Court or due to negligence or ignorance or some corrupt collusion. Time has become ripe to act on account of numerous experiences faced by Courts on account of frequent turning of witnesses as hostile, either due to threats, coercion, lures and monetary considerations at the instance of those in power, their henchmen and hirelings, political clouts and patronage and innumerable other corrupt practices ingenuously adopted to smoother and stifle truth and realities coming out to surface rendering truth and justice, to become ultimate casualties. Broader public and societal interests require that the victims of the crime who are not ordinarily parties to prosecution and the interests of State represented by their prosecuting agencies do not suffer even in slow process but irreversibly and irretrievably, which if allowed would undermine and destroy public confidence in the administration of justice, which may ultimately pave way for anarchy, oppression and injustice resulting in complete breakdown and collapse of the edifice of rule of law, enshrined and jealously guarded and protected by the Constitution. There comes the need for protecting the witness. Time has come when serious and undiluted thoughts are to be bestowed for protecting witnesses so that ultimate truth is presented before the Court and justice triumphs and the trial is not reduced to mockery. The State has a definite role to play in protecting the witnesses, to start with at least in sensitive cases involving those in power, who has political patronage and could wield muscle and money power, to avert trial getting tainted and derailed and truth becoming a casualty. As a protector of its citizens it has to ensure that during a trial in Court the witness could safely depose truth without any fear of being haunted by those against whom he has deposed. Some legislative enactments like the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act, 1987 (in short the 'TADA Act') have taken note of the reluctance shown by witnesses to depose against dangerous criminals-terrorists. In a milder form also the reluctance and the hesitation of witnesses to depose against people with muscle power, money power or political power has become the order of the day. If ultimately truth is to be arrived at, the eyes and ears of justice have to be protected so that the interests of justice do not get incapacitated in the sense of making the proceedings before Courts mere mock trials as are usually seen in movies.

15. Legislative measures to emphasise prohibition against tampering with witness, victim or informant have become the imminent and inevitable need of the day. Conducts which illegitimately affect the presentation of evidence in proceedings before the Courts have to be seriously and sternly dealt with. There should not be any undue anxiety to only protect the interest of the accused. That would be unfair as noted above to the needs of the society. On the contrary, the efforts should be to ensure fair trial where the accused and the prosecution both get a fair deal. Public interest in the proper administration of justice must be given as much importance if not more, as the interests of the individual accused. In this courts have a vital role to play."

15. Above judgment clearly enunciates the importance of witness in criminal trial. This is a case of murder of a Superintending Engineer. There is no manner of doubt that brutal assault was mounted on him which resulted into his death. The son of the deceased is seeking transfer of proceedings on ground of coercion and threat to the witnesses as well as doubtful sincerity of the investigating agency and prosecuting agency. In effective cross-examination by public prosecutor of the driver who resiled from the statement made during investigation speaks volumes about the sincerity/ effectiveness of the prosecuting agency. The necessity of fair trial hardly needs emphasis. The State has a definite role to play in protecting the witnesses, to start with at least in sensitive cases. The learned Judge has failed to take participatory role in the trial. He was not expected to act like a mere tape recorder to record whatever has been stated by the witnesses. Section 311 of the Code and Section 165 of the Evidence Act confers vast and wide powers on Court to elicit all necessary materials by playing an active role in the evidence collecting process. However, the record does not indicate that the learned Judge presiding the trial had exercised powers under Section 165 of the Evidence Act which is in a way complimentary to his other powers. It is true that there must be reasonable apprehension on the part of the party to a case that justice may not be done and mere allegation that there is apprehension that justice will not be done cannot be the basis for transfer. However, there is no manner of doubt that the reasonable apprehension that there would be failure of justice and acquittal of the accused only because the witnesses are threatened is made out by the petitioner.

16. This Court, on various occasions, had opportunity to discuss the importance of fair trial in Criminal Justice System and various circumstances in which a trial can be transferred to dispense fair and impartial justice. It would be advantageous to notice a few decisions of this Court with regard to the scope of Section 406 of Code of Criminal Procedure. In Gurcharan Dass Chadha vs. State of Rajasthan AIR 1966 SC 1418, this Court held as under: -

"A case is transferred if there is a reasonable apprehension on the part of a party to a case that justice will not be done. A petitioner is not required to demonstrate that justice will inevitably fail. He is entitled to a transfer if he shows circumstances from which it can be inferred that he entertains an apprehension and that it is reasonable in the circumstances alleged. It is one of the principles of the administration of justice that justice should not only be done but it should be seen to be done. However, a mere allegation that there is apprehension that justice will not be done in a given case does not suffice. The Court has further to see whether apprehension is reasonable or not. To judge the reasonableness of the apprehension the state of the mind of the person who entertains the apprehension is no doubt relevant but that is not all. The apprehension must not only be entertained, but must appear to the court to be a reasonable apprehension."

In Maneka Sanjay Gandhi vs. Rani Jethmalani (1979) 4 SCC 167, this Court has observed as under: - "Assurance of a fair trial is the first imperative of the dispensation of justice and the central criterion for the court to consider when a motion for transfer is made is not the hypersensitivity or relative convenience of a party or easy availability of legal services or like mini-grievances. Something more substantial, more compelling, more imperilling, from the point of view of public justice and its attendant environment, is necessitous if the Court is to exercise its power of transfer. This is the cardinal principle although the circumstances may be myriad and vary from case to case. We have to test the petitioner's grounds on this touchstone bearing in mind the rule that normally the complainant has the right to choose any court having jurisdiction and the accused cannot dictate where the case against him should be tried. Even so, the process of justice should not harass the parties and from that angle the court may weigh the circumstances." 

In K. Anbazhagan vs. Superintendent of Police (2004) 3 SCC 767, this Court held as under: -

"Free and fair trial is sine qua non of Article 21 of the Constitution. It is trite law that justice should not only be done but it should be seen to have been done. If the criminal trial is not free and fair and not free from bias, judicial fairness and the criminal justice system would be at stake shaking the confidence of the public in the system and woe would be the rule of law. It is important to note that in such a case the question is not whether the petitioner is actually biased but the question is whether the circumstances are such that there is a reasonable apprehension in the mind of the petitioner."

In Abdul Nazar Madani vs. State of Tamil Nadu (2000) 6 SCC 204, this Court observed as under: - "The purpose of criminal trial is to dispense fair and impartial justice uninfluenced by extraneous considerations. When it is shown that public confidence in the fairness of a trial would be seriously undermined, any party can seek the transfer of a case within the State under Section 407 and anywhere in the country under Section 406 Cr.P.C. The apprehension of not getting a fair and impartial inquiry or trial is required to be reasonable and not imaginary, based upon conjectures and surmises. If it appears that the dispensation of criminal justice is not possible impartially and objectively and without any bias before any court or even at any place, the appropriate court may transfer the case to another court where it feels that holding of fair and proper trial is conducive. No universal or hard-and-fast rules can be prescribed for deciding a transfer petition which has always to be decided on the basis of the facts of each case. Convenience of the parties including the witness to be produced at the trial is also a relevant consideration for deciding the transfer petition. The convenience of the parties does not necessarily mean the convenience of the petitioners alone who approached the court on misconceived notions of apprehension. Convenience for the purposes of transfer means the convenience of the prosecution, other accused, the witnesses and the larger interest of the society."

17. From the averments made in the petition it is evident that the accused belong to powerful gang operating in U.P. from which State of Uttarakhand is carved out. The petitioner has been able to show the circumstances from which it can be reasonably inferred that it has become difficult for the witnesses to safely depose truth because of fear of being haunted by those against whom they have to depose. The reluctance of the witnesses to go to the court at Haridwar in spite of receipt of repeated summons is bound to hamper the course of justice. If such a situation is permitted to continue, it will pave way for anarchy, oppression, etc., resulting in breakdown of criminal justice system. In order to see that the incapacitation of the eye-witnesses is removed and justice triumphs, it has become necessary to grant the relief claimed in the instant petition. On the facts and in the circumstances of the case this Court is of the opinion that interest of justice would be served if transfer of the case from Haridwar to Delhi is ordered.

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