SC acquits in rape case

Supreme Court: In an appeal against the Punjab and Haryana High Court’s decision upholding the Trial Court’s conviction order under Section 376 of the Penal Code, 1860 (‘IPC’) and sentence for seven years, the three Judge Bench of Sanjay Kishan Kaul, C.T. Ravikumar and Sudhanshu Dhulia, JJ. allowed the appeal and set aside the impugned order for lack of evidence to prove the victim’s age below sixteen years.

In the matter at hand, a First Information Report (‘FIR’) was lodged on 23-10-2000 by the victim’s father (‘complainant’) wherein it was alleged that the victim who was minor then, was called to her sister’s matrimonial home to take care of her after giving birth to a child. The victim informed her mother that during her stay there she was raped repeatedly by the convict. The families were considering marriage between the victim and the convict, however, upon refusal by convict’s family, the FIR under Section 376, 342, and Section 506 of the IPC was lodged.

The Court noted that in the year 2000, the age of consent was sixteen years and above and the medical examination of the victim and the victim’s mother stated that she was sixteen years of age at the time of incident.

Placing its reliance on State of Punjab v. Gurmit Singh, (1996) 2 SCC 384, the Court reiterated that the evidence of a rape victim is of the same value as that of an injured witness. It is again true that conviction can be made on the basis of the sole testimony of the victim, however, the Courts also have to be extremely careful while examining this sole testimony.

The Court also said that both the victim as well as the convict/ accused have a right to fair trial, and therefore when the victim’s statement does not inspire confidence and creates doubt, the Court must look for corroborative evidence.

Does the victim’s testimony in the present case inspire confidence?

The Court noted that the first incident of rape was alleged to be on 12-09-2000, however, the evidence led by none other but the prosecution that the victim had attended her classes in the school on 12-09-2000 at Dabwali, where she resides with her parents. The Court said that it was improbable that the alleged rape was on the same day at village Sanwat Khera, where she was staying with her sister when she attended her classes. The Court also noted that the FIR was ultimately filed when the initial proposal of marriage was turned down by the convict’s family.

Appreciation of evidence

The Court noted that the evidence, as to the age or even rape was not examined properly by the Trial Court as well as the High Court. The Court said that the Courts must examine each evidence with an open mind dispassionately as an accused is to be presumed innocent till proven guilty. Further, the Court said that in our adversarial system of criminal jurisprudence, the guiding principle shall always be the Blackstone ratio which holds that it is better than ten guilty persons escape than one innocent be punished. Regarding the evidence for the victim’s age, the Court noted that the Trial Court had solely relied on the school register. The Court found that the recorded date of birth in the school register was 04-04-1987 and this date of birth was recorded not on the parent’s statement but by some other person and more importantly, it was based on the transfer certificate of Government Primary School. The Court pointed that both the Trial Court and the High Court relied upon the veracity of the school register, even when the transfer certificate, on the basis of which the date of birth was recorded, was never produced in the Court. Yet, both the Trial Court and the High Court have relied upon the veracity of the school register. Further, the Court noted that the Trial Court discarded the evidence of the same school register which marked the victim’s presence on 12-09-2000. The Court said that this is not a fair appreciation of evidence, as the same school register was the only basis for the determination of the age of the victim.

Placing its reliance on Birad Mal Singhvi v. Anand Purohit, (1988) Supp SCC 604 wherein it was observed that the date of birth in the register of a school would not have any evidentiary value without the testimony of the person making the entry or the person who gave the date of birth, the Court opined that the proof submitted by the prosecution regarding the victim’s age in the form of the school register was not sufficient to arrive at a finding that the victim was less than sixteen years of age, especially when there were contradictory evidences before the Trial Court. The Court stated that it was neither safe nor fair to convict, particularly when the victim’s age was such a crucial factor in the case.

Further, the Court perused the victim’s medical examination report which did not indicate any form of injury on the victim’s body and use of force. The Court pointed out the fact that no ossification test was conducted to ascertain the victim’s age.

The Court noted that it was prosecution’s case that initially the proposal of the marriage was accepted by the convict’s family and only when the convict refused the offer of marriage, the FIR was lodged. Therefore, the Court stated that all these factors point out towards the fact that what was alleged as rape was not rape but could be a consensual act. The Court said that the only factor which could have made the consensual aspect immaterial and made it a case of ‘rape’ was the victim’s age, and no definite conclusion was made on the said aspect of age. Therefore, the Court said that on prosecution’s failure to prove the victim’s age to be below sixteen years of age, the benefit ought to be given to the convict. Further, the Court said that as to the factum of rape itself, the offence of rape was not made out in this case as the ingredients of Rape as defined under Section 375 of the IPC were not satisfied.

Thus, the Court allowed the appeal and set aside the High Court’s and Trial Court’s conviction order. The appellant was acquitted of the charges of Section 376 IPC.

[Manak Chand v. State of Haryana, 2023 SCC OnLine SC 1397, Decided on: 30-10-2023]

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