Trial Court not a ‘mere post office’; must apply its mind while framing charges: SC unimpressed with discharge of murder accused based on postmortem report only 

Supreme Court: Explaining the importance of the role of Trails Courts, especially, with respect to framing of charges, the bench of AM Khanwilkar, Abhay S. Oka and JB Pardiwala*, JJ has held that the trial court is enjoined with the duty to apply its mind at the time of framing of charge and should not act as a mere post office. The endorsement on the charge sheet presented by the police as it is without applying its mind and without recording brief reasons in support of its opinion is not countenanced by law.

Factual Background

Allegedly, the accused persons formed an unlawful assembly and laid an assault on the appellant and his family members after trespassing into his residential property and started damaging the tin fence. When the appellant tried to restrain the accused persons from causing any further damage, they all started assaulting the appellant by giving fisticuffs. One even hit the appellant with a wooden log. When the wife and the daughter-in-law of the appellant came to rescue him, the accused persons caught hold of them and beat them up. Both the women were then dragged as a result the clothes of the the wife of the appellant got torn thereby outraging her modesty. The wife, due to the injuries suffered by her, had to be shifted to a hospital where she was soon declared dead. The cause of death of the deceased as assigned in the post mortem was “cardio respiratory failure”.

Trial Court and High Court orders

The trial court thought fit to discharge the accused persons of the offence of murder punishable under Section 302 of the IPC and proceeded to frame charge against the accused persons for the offence of culpable homicide punishable under Section 304 of the IPC. The High Court of Jammu and Kashmir also thought fit to affirm the order passed by the trial court discharging the accused persons of the offence of murder.

Supreme Court’s analysis and decision

The Court observed that the trial court discharged the accused persons from the offence of murder and proceeded to frame charge for the offence of culpable homicide under Section 304 of the IPC by only taking into consideration the medical evidence on record. The trial court as well as the High Court got persuaded by the fact that the cause of death of the deceased as assigned in the postmortem report being the “cardio respiratory failure”, the same cannot be said to be having any nexus with the alleged assault that was laid on the deceased.

Holding that such approach of the trial court is not correct and cannot be countenanced in law, the Court explained that the post mortem report, by itself, does not constitute substantive evidence.

“Whether the “cardio respiratory failure” had any nexus with the incident in question would have to be determined on the basis of the oral evidence of the eye witnesses as well as the medical officer concerned i.e. the expert witness who may be examined by the Prosecution as one of its witnesses.”

Explaining why the postmortem report of the doctor is not substantive evidence, the Court observed that it is the previous statement based on doctor’s examination of the dead body and the doctor’s statement in court is alone the substantive evidence.

“The postmortem report can be used only to corroborate his statement under Section 157, or to refresh   his memory under Section 159, or to contradict his statement in the witness-box under Section 145 of the Evidence Act, 1872.”

Observing that the evidence given by the medical officer is really of an advisory character given on the basis of the symptoms found on examination, the Court said that once the expert’s opinion is accepted by the Court, it is not the opinion of the medical officer but of the Court.

Keeping this position of law in mind, the Court held that in the case at hand, the prosecution should have been given opportunity to prove all the relevant facts including the post mortem report through the medical officer concerned by leading oral evidence and thereby seek the opinion of the expert. It was too early on the part of the trial court as well as the High Court to arrive at the conclusion that since no serious injuries were noted in the postmortem report, the death of the deceased on account of “cardio respiratory failure” cannot be said to be having any nexus with the incident in question.

Further, whether the case falls under Section 302 or 304 Part II, IPC could have been decided by the trial court only after the evaluation of the entire oral evidence that may be led by the prosecution as well as by the defence, if any, comes on record.

“Ultimately, upon appreciation of the entire evidence on record at the end of the trial, the trial court may take one view or the other i.e. whether it is a case of murder or case of culpable homicide. But at the stage of framing of the charge, the trial court could not have reached to such a conclusion merely relying upon the port mortem report on record. The High Court also overlooked such fundamental infirmity in the order passed by the trial court and proceeded to affirm the same.”

Explaining the settled position of law that in a criminal trial, the prosecution can lead evidence only in accordance with the charge framed by the trial court, the Court said that once the trial court decides to discharge an accused person from the offence punishable under Section 302 of the IPC and proceeds to frame the lesser charge for the offence punishable under Section 304 Part II of the IPC, the prosecution will be thereafter compelled to proceed as if it has now to establish only the case of culpable homicide and not murder. On the other hand, even if the trial court proceeds to frame charge under Section 302 IPC in accordance with the case put up by the prosecution still it would be open for the accused to persuade the Court at the end of the trial that the case falls only within the ambit of culpable homicide punishable under Section 304 of IPC.

The Court was, hence, of the opinion that in the case at hand it would be more prudent to permit the prosecution to lead appropriate evidence whatever it is worth in accordance with its original case as put up in the chargesheet.

[Ghulam Hassan Beigh v. Mohammad Maqbool Magrey, 2022 SCC OnLine SC 913, decided on 26.07.2022]


*Judgment by: Justice JB Pardiwala

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