Supreme Court: In a case wherein concern was raised regarding common deficiencies and practices adopted by trial courts during criminal trial and disposal of cases, in the absence of uniform guidelines, the three-judge bench of UU Lalit, CJ., S. Ravindra Bhat and Bela M. Trivedi, JJ. in a 2: 1 majority decision, dismissed the appeal holding that even though some High Courts and governments of States/Union Territories had delayed in adopting the Draft Rules of Criminal Practice, 2020 (Draft Rules), it cannot prejudice the right of an accused which had already been recognized by this Court in its final order dated 20-04-2021.
Facts of the Case
In the present case, the appellant along with the other eight accused were convicted and sentenced by the City Civil and Sessions Court for the offences punishable under Section 120-B, 109, 341, 302 read with Section 34 of the Penal Code, 1860 (IPC). For confirmation, the Sessions Court referred its judgment and order to the High Court. The accused (appellant) filed various appeals before the High Court challenging the order of the Sessions Court. The counsel for the appellant kept requesting the High Court to adjourn the hearing and a letter was brought to the notice of the High Court, wherein, the counsel of the appellant had asked the Inspector (Law and Order) to produce certain documents, stating that these documents were required for fair adjudication of the case, in the light of the decision in case of Manoj v. State of Madhya Pradesh, 2022 SCC OnLine SC 677.
The counsel for the appellant submitted that till the copies of the documents demanded by them were furnished, it was not possible for them to proceed with the hearing of the appeals pending before the High Court. Moreover, according to them, the observations made by this Court in Manoj were very much significant for safeguarding the rights of the accused to a fair investigation carried out by the mighty State’s police machinery; and that the interest of the justice warranted that the further hearing pending before the High Court be stayed till the appellants and other accused were provided with the documents demanded by them.
In a case in 2017, this Court appointed amici curiae and issued notice to all High Courts and governments of all States and Union Territories, so consensus could be arrived at regarding the need to amend rules of practice/criminal manuals to bring about uniform best practices across the country. Based on the feedback received from the High Courts and the Governments, the amici curiae prepared a report containing the Draft Rules which were finalized by this Court in 2021 after noting that most of the decisions were agreed upon.
The amici curiae had pointed out that “before the commencement of the trial, the accused only receives a list of documents and statements relied upon by the prosecution but was kept in the dark on other material in the possession of the prosecution, even if it has exculpatory value”. On this, the Court held:
“while furnishing the list of statements, documents, and material objects under Sections 207/208 CrPC, the Magistrate should also ensure that a list of other materials, (such as statements, or objects/documents seized, but not relied on) should be furnished to the accused. This is to ensure that in case the accused is of the view that such materials are necessary to be produced for a proper and just trial, she or he may seek appropriate orders, under CrPC for their production during the trial, in the interests of justice. It is directed accordingly; the Draft Rules have been accordingly modified. [Rule 4(i)]”
Majority Opinion – Per S. Ravindra Bhat, J for himself and UU Lalit, CJ
Rule 4 of Draft Rules of Criminal Practice, 2021, which were appended to, and considered part and parcel of this court’s order in the case in 2021, reads as follows:
“4. Supply of documents under Sections 173, 207 and 208 CrPC. —(i) Every accused shall be supplied with statements of witness recorded under Sections 161 and 164 CrPC and a list of documents, material objects and exhibits seized during investigation and relied upon by the investigating officer (IO) in accordance with Sections 207 and 208 CrPC.
Explanation: The list of statements, documents, material objects and exhibits shall specify statements, documents, material objects and exhibits that are not relied upon by the investigating officer.”
The Draft Rules framed, therefore, were a product of a thorough consultative exercise undertaken to remedy asymmetries caused by the lack of uniformity in Rules across States, which could hamper appreciation of evidence, and in turn delay proceedings, especially at the appellate stage.
The Court after taking note of the case Siddharth Vasisht @ Manu Sharma v. State of NCT Delhi, (2010) 6 SCC 1, held in Manoj that:
“The prosecution, in the interests of fairness, should as a matter of rule, in all criminal trials, comply with the above rule, and furnish the list of statements, documents, material objects and exhibits which are not relied upon by the investigating officer. The presiding officers of courts in criminal trials shall ensure compliance with such rules.”
The Court relied on V.K. Sasikala v. State, (2012) 9 SCC 771, wherein the material/documents forwarded to the Magistrate under Section 173 CrPC were not relied on by the prosecution. However, the Court opined that it was undeniable that there could also arise a situation wherein the investigating officer, ignores or does not rely on seized documents, material or evidence which favoured the accused, and fails to forward it to the Magistrate. Merely because it was not already on the record of the court, it cannot disentitle the accused from accessing material that may have exculpatory value. This issue was recognized and addressed in Rule 4 of the Draft Rules, by introducing a requirement of providing a list (at the commencement of the trial) of all documents, material, evidence, etc. seized during investigation or in the possession of the prosecution, regardless of whether the prosecution plans to rely on it.
The framework was that, based on the list of statements, documents, etc. received at the commencement of the trial, the accused can seek appropriate orders under Section 91 of the CrPC. Additionally, by virtue of Section 391 CrPC, the appellate court, if it deems necessary, may take further evidence (or direct it be taken by a magistrate or court of sessions) upon recording reasoning. This safeguards the right of the accused in a situation where concern has been raised regarding evidence or material in possession of the prosecution, that had not been furnished, but was material to the trial and disposal of the case.
The Court noted that since some High Courts or governments of the States/Union Territories had failed to comply with this court’s order in 2021 and were delayed in adopting the Draft Rules or amending the concerned police/practice manuals, this cannot prejudice the right of an accused (to receive this list of the statements, documents, material, etc. in the possession of the prosecution), which had unequivocally been recognized by this court in its final order itself.
The proper and suitable interpretation of the disclosure requirement in Manoj would be as follows:
It applies at the trial stage, after the charges are framed.
The court was required to give one opportunity of disclosure, and the accused may choose to avail of the facility at that stage.
In case documents were sought, the trial court should exercise its discretion, considering the rule of relevance in the context of the accused’s right of defense. If the document or material was relevant and did not merely have remote bearing to the defense, its production may be directed. This opportunity cannot be sought repeatedly – the trial court could decline to issue orders, if it feels that the attempt was to delay.
The Court held that no doubt that the accused had a right to fair trail, but this right was manifested in the fair disclosure requirement as given in Manoj. Thus, the Court agreed that the appeal made at this late stage appeared to be to prolong the hearing.
The Court opined that the final order proposed by Bela Trivedi, J of rejecting an appeal was justified in the present case. However, the Court differed on the observations made about the accused’s right to be supplied with documents or material, seized, or collected during the investigation, but were not relied on.
Dissenting Opinion – Per Bela M. Trivedi, J
Trivedi, J opined that submissions made by the counsel for the appellant deserved to be outrightly rejected as they were advanced out of sheer misconception of the law and misinterpretation of the observations made by this Court in Manoj. The observations made by this Court in the case of Manoj are reproduced as follows:
The public prosecutor and the trial court’s scrutiny both play an essential role in safeguarding the accused’s right to fair investigation, when faced with the might of the state’s police machinery.
This Court had required the framing of rules by all states and High Courts, in this regard, compelling disclosure of a list containing mention of all materials seized and taken in, during investigation-to the accused. The relevant draft rules, approved by this Court, for adoption by all states were given under Rule 4 of the Draft Rules.
Thus, the prosecution, in the interests of fairness, should as a matter of rule, in all criminal trials, comply with the above rule, and furnish the list of statements, documents, material objects and exhibits which were not relied upon by the investigating officer. The presiding officers of courts in criminal trials shall ensure compliance with such rules.
She noted that Rule 4 of the Draft Rules regarding the supply of documents was to be followed during investigation and before the commencement of the trial and not at the appellate stage before the High Court or the Supreme Court. Moreover, the attempt made on behalf of the appellant to delay the hearing of the appeals under the guise that they had demanded certain documents from the Investigating Officer was reprehensible.
[P. Ponnusamy v. State of Tamil Nadu, 2022 SCC OnLine SC 1543, decided on 7-11-2022]
Advocates who appeared in this case:
For the Appellant(s): Senior Advocate Anjana Prakash;
Advocate G. Sriram.