De novo retrial of a criminal case

Validity of directions given for re-trial of criminal case.

During the trial, it transpired that most of the witnesses had turned hostile. This further prompted the complainant to approach the High Court of Gujarat with an appropriate writ petition seeking certain reliefs including that of de novo trial. The parties requested that the hearings in the aforesaid criminal miscellaneous application (seeking cancellation of bail) be deferred to await the decision of the High Court. The High Court has decided the writ petition filed by the complainant vide its detailed judgment dated June 29, 2017. Allowing the said writ petition, the High Court has directed de novo trial of the case with the following specific directions:

“95. This writ application is disposed of with the following directions:

(1) The High Court on the administrative side shall pass an appropriate order transferring all the three CBI Sessions cases i.e. CBI Sessions Cases Nos. 1 of 2014, 2 of 2014 and 3 of 2014 as on date pending in the Court of the Presiding Officer, namely, Shri Dinesh L. Patel, CBI Courts, Court No. 4, Ahmedabad to any other CBI Court. On all the three CBI Sessions cases referred to above being transferred to a particular Court, the Presiding Officer concerned shall retry all the accused persons on the selfsame charge framed.

(2) The prosecuting agency i.e. the CBI shall obtain the witness summons from the Court concerned and start examining the witnesses a fresh.

(3) The retrial shall commence at the earliest and shall proceed on the day-to-day basis.

(4) The retrial shall be in-camera proceedings.

(5) The prosecuting agency i.e. the CBI as well as the State police machinery is directed to ensure that full protection is given to each of the witnesses and they be assured that no harm would befall upon them in any manner. For ensuring of a sense of confidence in the mind of the witnesses, and to ensure that they depose freely and fearlessly before the Court, the following steps shall be taken:

(i) Ensuring safe passage for the witnesses to and from the Court precincts.

(ii) Providing security to the witnesses in their place of residence wherever considered necessary, and

(iii) Relocation of witnesses to any State or to any other place, as thought fit, wherever such a step is necessary.

Let me at this stage clarify something important. It could be argued that the directions issued by this Court amounts to directly or indirectly exerting pressure on the witnesses, but the answer to this is an emphatic ‘No’. These directions are necessary and are in line of doing complete justice.

xxx xxx xxx “96. I conclude this judgment reminding one and all that justice is a concept involving the fair, moral and impartial treatment of all persons. In its most general sense, it means according individuals what they actually deserve or merit, or are in some sense entitled to. Justice is a particularly foundational concept within most systems of “Law”. From the prospective of pragmatism, it is a name for a fair result. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

Challenging that order, Mr. Solanki and few other co-accused persons have filed Special Leave Petitions bearing SLP(Criminal) No. 4965 of 2017, SLP(Criminal) No. 5086 of 2017, SLP(Criminal) No. 5309 of 2017 and SLP(Criminal) No. 5321 of 2017.

Argument opposing re-trial.

Accused persons had opposed the prayer of the complainant in the said writ petition inter alia on the ground that such writ petition was not maintainable and the Court could not order retrial before the judgment is pronounced by the trial court. It was argued that Section 386 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973 (Cr.P.C.) confers powers on the appellate court to order retrial and, therefore, it was necessary to await the judgment of the trial court and if the circumstances warranted, depending upon the outcome of the trial court verdict, such a plea could be taken in the appeal only.

Concept of fair trial.

The High Court has given a detailed discourse on the necessity to have a fair trial, as a backdrop of the rule of law as well as for dispensation of criminal justice. Taking cognizance of so many judgments2 of this Court wherein the concept of fair trial with the sole idea of finding the truth and to ensure that justice is done, and extensively quoting from the said judgments, the High Court has emphasised that free and fair trial is sine qua non of Article 21 of the Constitution of India. It has also remarked that criminal justice system is meant not only safeguarding the interest of the accused persons, but is equally devoted to the rights of the victims as well. If the criminal trial is not free and fair, then the confidence of the public in the judicial fairness of a judge and the justice delivery system would be shaken. Denial to fair trial is as much injustice to the accused as to the victim and the society. No trial can be treated as a fair trial unless there is an impartial judge conducting the trial, an honest and fair defence counsel and equally honest and fair public prosecutor. A fair trial necessarily includes fair and proper opportunity to the prosecutor to prove the guilt of the accused and opportunity to the accused to prove his innocence.

In this backdrop, argument of the accused persons predicated on Section 368 of Cr.P.C. answered as follows:

“60. In the gross facts which I have highlighted, should I tell the devastated and crestfallen father that although the trial has been a farce, yet the Appeal Court will look into the matter if necessary in exercise of its powers under Section 386 of the Cr. P.C? It is like telling the victim to undergo an unfair trial because there is an Appellate Court to give him a fair hearing and the necessary relief. Should I ask the writ applicant to adduce materials in the form of proof beyond reasonable doubt as regards the tampering of the witnesses? Is the material on record not sufficient for this Court to draw a legitimate inference that it is only on account of sheer power and position of the main accused that the entire trial has been reduced to a farce and could be termed as a mock trial? I have no hesitation in rejecting the arguments of the learned counsel appearing for the accused persons that merely because the witnesses turned hostile, the Court cannot order a retrial in exercise of its extraordinary powers under Article 226 of the Constitution of India. A very feeble argument has been canvassed before me that none of the witnesses complained to the Presiding Officer that they were being threatened or induced by the accused persons. A witness, who has been administered dire threats or won over would never dare to utter a single word.

It was for the Presiding Officer and the prosecuting agency to look into the matter and see to it that all the witnesses deposed freely and without any fear in their mind

Scope of writ jurisdiction defined by Supreme Court:

Normally such a retrial has to be ordered by the Appellate Court while dealing with the validity and correctness of the judgment of the trial court as this power is expressly conferred upon the Appellate Court by Section 386 of the Cr.P.C. However, in exceptional circumstances, such a power can be exercised by the High Court under Article 226 or by this Court under Article 32 of the Constitution of India. In fact, there are judicial precedents to this effect which have already been mentioned above. There are no shackles to the powers of the Constitutional Court under these provisions, except self-imposed restrictions laid down by Courts themselves. But for that, these powers are plenary in nature meant to do complete justice and to inhibit travesty of justice. Therefore, we are largely in agreement with the conclusion arrived at by the High Court to the effect that the present case was one of those exceptional cases where possibility of witnesses getting hostile because of inducement or threats cannot be ruled out.

Principles of trial re-stated by Supreme Court:

We are also mindful of the principle that standard of proof that is required in such criminal cases is that the guilt has to be proved beyond reasonable doubt. However, at the same time, it is also necessary to ensure that trial is conducted fairly where witnesses are able to depose truthfully and fearlessly. Old adage judicial doctrine, which is the bedrock of criminal jurisprudence, still holds good, viz., the basic assumption that an accused is innocent till the guilt is proved by cogent evidence. It is also an acceptable principle that guilt of an accused is to be proved beyond reasonable doubt. Even in a case of a slight doubt about the guilt of the under trial, he is entitled to benefit of doubt. All these principles are premised on the doctrine that ‘ten criminals may go unpunished but one innocent person should not be convicted”. Emphasis here is on ensuring that innocent person should not be convicted. Convicting innocence leads to serious flaws in the criminal justice system. That has remained one of the fundamental reasons for loading the processual system in criminal law with various safeguards that accused persons enjoy when they suffer trials. Conventional criminology has leaned in favour of persons facing trials, with the main objective that innocent persons should not get punished.

At the same time, realisation is now dawning that other side of the crime, namely, victim is also an important stakeholder in the criminal justice and welfare policies. The victim has, till recently, remained forgotten actor in the crime scenario. It is for this reason that “victim justice” has become equally important, namely, to convict the person responsible for a crime. This not only ensures justice to the victim, but to the society at large as well. Therefore, traditional criminology coupled with deviance theory, which had ignored the victim and was offender focussed, has received significant dent with focus shared by the discipline by victimology as well. An interest in the victims of the crime is more than evident now.

There is a discernible paradigm shift in the criminal justice system in India which keeps in mind the interests of victims as well. Victim oriented policies are introduced giving better role to the victims of crime in criminal trials. It has led to adopting two pronged strategy. On the one hand, law now recognises, with the insertion of necessary statutory provisions, expanding role of victim in the procedural justice. On the other hand, substantive justice is also done to these victims by putting an obligation on the State (and even the culprit of crime) by providing adequate compensation to the victims9. The result is that private parties are now able to assert “their claim for fair trail and, thus, an effective ‘say’ in criminal prosecution, not merely as a ‘witness’ but also as one impacted”

That apart, it is in the larger interest of the society that actual perpetrator of the crime gets convicted and is suitably punished. Those persons who have committed the crime, if allowed to go unpunished, this also leads to weakening of the criminal justice system and the society starts losing faith therein. Therefore, the first part of the celebrated dictum “ten criminals may go unpunished but one innocent should not be convicted” has not to be taken routinely. No doubt, latter part of the aforesaid phrase, i.e., “innocent person should not be convicted” remains still valid. However, that does not mean that in the process “ten persons may go unpunished” and law becomes a mute spectator to this scenario, showing its helplessness. In order to ensure that criminal justice system is vibrant and effective, perpetrators of the crime should not go unpunished and all efforts are to be made to plug the loopholes which may give rise to the aforesaid situation.

However, it is stated at the cost of repetition that requirement of a fair trial has to be fulfilled. When the trial takes place, as many as 105 witnesses turn hostile, out of 195 witnesses examined, is so eloquent that it does not need much effort to fathom into the reasons there for. However, when the aforesaid facts are considered cumulatively, it compels us to take a view that in the interest of fair trial, at least crucial witnesses need to be examined again.

Deliberations by Supreme Court:

It transpires that the CBI had stated before the High Court that de novo trial may not be necessary and the purpose would be served by recalling 46 witnesses, out of which 8 witnesses are cited as eye-witnesses. We feel that the examination of all the witnesses once again in de novo trial may not be appropriate in the circumstances of this case. On the order passed by this Court for conducting day to day trial, the trial court could record the deposition of 195 witnesses over a period of one year. Obviously, in the process of giving priority to this case by fixing it for evidence, practically on every working day, same would have happened at the cost of adjourning many other cases. Directing a trial court to spend this kind of time once again is a tall order and the same purpose which is sought to be achieved by the High Court could be served by re-examining only those witnesses which are absolutely necessary. After all, out of 195 witnesses, if 105 witnesses have been declared hostile, 90 other witnesses have been examined and cross-examined and their deposition is not required to be recorded again. Further, among them, there would be many officials/formal witnesses as well. Likewise, some of the witnesses though turned hostile, their testimony may not have much bearing.

Directions by Supreme Court

Going by the exceptional circumstances in which retrial is ordered by the High Court, and is being maintained in principle, with only modification that instead of all witnesses, 26 witnesses would be re-examined, we are of the opinion that in order to ensure that there is a fair trial in literal sense of the term, at least till the time eight eye-witnesses are re-examined, Mr. Solanki should remain in confinement and he be released thereafter with certain conditions, pending remaining trial. We, therefore, dispose of Criminal Miscellaneous Petition No. 14006 of 2015 with the following directions:

a) Bail granted to Mr. Solanki by this Court vide order dated February 25, 2014 stands cancelled for the time being. He shall be taken into custody and shall remain in custody during the period eight eye-witnesses are re-examined.

b) The trial court shall summon 26 witnesses who are to be examined afresh. In the first instance, 8 eye-witnesses shall be summoned and examined on day to day basis. Once their depositions in the form of examination-in-chief and cross-examination are recorded, Mr. Solanki shall be released on bail again on the same terms and conditions on which he was granted bail earlier by this Court by order dated February 25, 2014. After Mr. Solanki comes out on bail, there shall be an additional condition, namely, till the recording and completion of the statements of other witnesses, he shall not enter the State of Gujarat. To put it clearly, after Mr. Solanki is released on bail, he shall immediately move out of the State of Gujarat and shall not enter the said State till the completion of remaining evidence, except on the days of hearing when he would be appearing in the court. It will be open to the trial court to add any further conditions, if the circumstances so warrant.

c) The trial court shall also endeavour to record the remaining evidence as well as expeditiously as possible by conducting the trial on day to day basis.

[Source: Dinubhai Boghabhai Solanki vs State of Gujarat, decided by SC on 30 October, 2017]
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