Alarmed by trial and conviction of a person with an unsound mind, Meghalaya High Court stresses on quality of free legal aid

Meghalaya High Court

   

Meghalaya High Court: The Division Bench of Sanjib Banerjee, CJ. and W. Diengdoh, J. was alarmed by the present criminal appeal due to the nature of the case , and sets aside the conviction of the appellant for being a person of unsound mind and wasconvicted in a triple murder case.

The appellant who was represented by the Legal Aid Counsel was convicted under Section 302 of Penal Code, 1860 for triple murder but sentenced only to 14 years' imprisonment. Public Prosecutor was requested to look into the matter and assist the Court. Several documents which were on record revealed that the trial could not have taken place as there was a firm medical opinion that the appellant herein was unfit to stand trial and required treatment. Despite such medical status report of 07-03-2012 issued by the Senior Medical and Health Officer, Psychiatrist, Meghalaya Institute of Mental Health and Neurological Sciences, Shillong being forwarded to the trial court by the Superintendent of District Jail, Shillong under cover of a letter dated 14-03-2012, the trial court proceeded to record the statement of the appellant without referring to his mental condition or the medical opinion forwarded to the Court.

The impugned order had been passed by a Judge in a District Council Court authorised by the Governor to take up heinous offences involving harsh punishment as long as the matter was between a tribal and another. The Court stated that fundamental rules of justice need to be followed, particularly in course of a criminal trial and high authorities instruct that even if a confession is made by an accused of sound mind, the conviction should not be founded simply on the admission; but should be seen as corroborative material if the evidence otherwise indicates the high likelihood of the commission of the offence by the accused.

The Court noted that in this case despite the trial court being informed of the mental condition of the appellant herein, the trial court proceeded to pass the order of conviction. The Court opined that merely because the Sixth Schedule to the Constitution does not require the letter of the Criminal Procedure Code to be adhered to does not imply that common sense and all fundamental cannons of justice have to be thrown to the wind by the District Council Court, surprisingly authorised to deal with such a serious matter when it is obvious that the Judge concerned lacks basic sense of justice and is completely bereft of domain knowledge on the subject.

Since the trial in this case could not have been undertaken in the wake of the medical report, the Court set aside the entire process and the judgment of conviction and sentence. The matter was remanded to the trial court to be dealt with in accordance with law, particularly keeping in mind the requirements of Section 329 of the Criminal Procedure Code, 1973.

The Court further emphasized on the fact that it is the duty of the State to ensure that an accused gets adequate legal assistance to set up his defence even if the accused is not able to afford a lawyer to represent him. The State Legal Services Authority was directed to ensure that appointments as legal aid counsel were not made on extraneous considerations or merely because an application has been made therefor. The Court also noted that

Till such time that the legal education system is strengthened and burgeoning cattle-shed law colleges are arrested from unleashing completely untrained personnel to be qualified to obtain license for practice, even as the statutory watchdog plays the fiddle, a strict vigil must be maintained on the appointment of legal aid counsel so that the colossal disservice that was done to the appellant in this case, instead of rendering any assistance, is not repeated.”

[Bremingstar Mylliem v. State of Meghalaya, 2022 SCC OnLine Megh 431, decided on 23-08-2022]


Advocates who appeared in this case :

A. Khan, Legal Aid Counsel, Advocate, for the Appellant;

K. Khan, PP with R. Gurung, GA, Advocates, for the Respondent.


*Suchita Shukla, Editorial Assistant has reported this brief.

Join the discussion

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.