Is Conviction Based On Sole Testimony Of Victim In Rape Cases Sustainable?

Is Conviction Based On Sole Testimony Of Victim In Rape Cases Sustainable?

A prosecutrix of a sex offence cannot be put on par with an accomplice. She is in fact a victim of the crime. The Evidence Act nowhere says that her evidence cannot be accepted unless it is corroborated in material particulars. She is undoubtedly a competent witness under S.118 and her evidence must receive the same weight as is attached to an injured in cases of physical violence.

It is the settled position of law that conviction under Section 376 of Indian Penal Code can be founded on the sole testimony of the prosecutrix, unless there are compelling reasons for seeking corroboration. Just as a witness who has sustained some injury in the occurrence, which is not found to be self-inflicted, is considered to be a good witness in the sense that he is least likely to shield the real culprit, the evidence of a victim of a sexual offence is entitled to great weight, absence of corroboration notwithstanding. Corroborative evidence is not an imperative component of judicial credence in every case of rape.

In State of Himachal Pradesh v. Asha Ram, AIR 2006 SC 381 : 2006 SCC (Cri) 296 : 2005 (13) SCC 766 Supreme Court held as follows;

".... It is now well settled principle of law that conviction can be founded on the testimony of the prosecutrix alone unless there are compelling reasons for seeking corroboration. The evidence of a prosecutrix is more reliable than that of an injured witness. The testimony of the victim of sexual assault is vital unless there are compelling reasons which necessitate looking for corroboration of her statement, the Courts should find no difficulty in acting on the testimony of a victim of sexual assault alone to convict an accused where her testimony inspires confidence and is found to be reliable. It is also well settled principle of law that corroboration as a condition for judicial reliance on the testimony of the prosecutrix is not a requirement of law but a guidance of prudence under given circumstances. The evidence of the prosecutrix is more reliable than that of an injured witness. Even minor contradictions or insignificant discrepancies in the statement of the prosecutrix should not be a ground for throwing out an otherwise reliable prosecution case."

In State of Maharashtra v. Chandraprakash Kewalchand Jain, 1990 (1) SCC 550 the Supreme Court held as follows;

'Evidence' means and includes all statements which the Court permits or requires to be made before it by witnesses, in relation to the matters of fact under inquiry. Under S.59 all facts, except the contents of documents, may be proved by oral evidence. S.118 then tells us who may give oral evidence. According to that section all persons are competent to testify unless the Court considers that they are prevented from understanding the questions put to them, or from giving rational answers to those questions, by tender years, extreme old age, disease, whether of body or mind, or any other cause of the same kind. Even in the case of an accomplice S.133 provides that he shall be a competent witness against an accused person; and a conviction is not illegal merely because it proceeds upon the uncorroborated testimony of an accomplice. However, illustration (b) to S.114, which lays down a rule of practice, says that the Court 'may' presume that an accomplice is unworthy of credit, unless he is corroborated in material particulars. Thus under S.133, which lays down a rule of law, an accomplice is a competent witness and a conviction based solely on his uncorroborated evidence is not illegal although in view of S.114, illustration (b), Courts do not as a matter of practice do so and look for corroboration in material particulars. This is the conjoint effect of S.133 and S.114, illustration (b).

A prosecutrix of a sex offence cannot be put on par with an accomplice. She is in fact a victim of the crime. The Evidence Act nowhere says that her evidence cannot be accepted unless it is corroborated in material particulars. She is undoubtedly a competent witness under S.118 and her evidence must receive the same weight as is attached to an injured in cases of physical violence. The same degree of care and caution must attach in the evaluation of her evidence as in the case of an injured complainant or witness and no more. What is necessary is that the Court must be alive to and conscious of the fact that it is dealing with the evidence of a person who is interested in the outcome of the charge levelled by her. If the Court keeps this in mind and feels satisfied that it can act on the evidence of the prosecutrix, there is no rule of law or practice incorporated in the Evidence Act similar to illustration (b) to S.114 which requires it to look for corroboration. If for some reason the Court is hesitant to place implicit reliance on the testimony of the prosecutrix it may look for evidence which may lend assurance to her testimony short of corroboration required in the case of an accomplice

The nature of evidence required to lend assurance to the testimony of the prosecutrix must necessarily depend on the facts and circumstances of each case. But if a prosecutrix is an adult and of full understanding the Court is entitled to base a conviction on her evidence unless the same is shown to be infirm and not trustworthy. If the totality of the circumstances appearing on the record of the case disclose that the prosecutrix does not have a strong motive to falsely involve the person charged, the Court should ordinarily have no hesitation in accepting her evidence.

Supreme Court, in Rameshwar v. The State of Rajasthan, declared that corroboration is not the sine que-non for a conviction in a rape case. The utterance of the Court in Rameshwar may be replayed, across the time-gap of three decades which have whistled past, in the inimitable voice of Vivian Bose, J. who spoke for the Court The rule, which according to the cases has hardened into one of law, is not that corroboration is essential before there can be a conviction but that the necessity of corroboration, as a matter of prudence, except where the circumstances make it safe to dispense with it, must be present to the mind of the judge .......

The only rule of law is that this rule of prudence must be present to the mind of the Judge or the jury as the case may be and be understood and appreciated by him or them. There is no rule of practice that there must, in every case, be corroboration before a conviction can be allowed to stand."

The Reasons

Bharwada Bhoginbhai Hirjibhai v. State of Gujarat 1983 (3) SCC 217 it is held as follows;

In the Indian setting, refusal to act on the testimony of a victim of sexual assault in the absence of corroboration as a rule, is adding insult to injury. Why should the evidence of the girl or the woman who complains of rape or sexual molestation be viewed with the aid of spectacles fitted with lenses tinged with doubt, disbelief or suspicion ? To do so is to justify the charge of male chauvinism in a male dominated society.

Without the fear of making too wide a statements or of overstating the case, it can be said that rarely will a girl or a woman in India make false allegations of sexual assault on account of any such factor as has been just enlisted. The statement is generally true in the context of the urban as also rural Society. It is also by and large true in the context of the sophisticated, not so sophisticated, and unsophisticated society. Only very rarely can one conceivably come across an exception or two and that too possibly from amongst the urban elites. Because:

(1) A girl or a woman in the tradition bound non- permissive Society of India would be extremely reluctant even to admit that any incident which is likely to reflect on her chastity had ever occurred.

(2) She would be conscious of the danger of being ostracised by the Society or being looked down by the Society including by her own family members, relatives, friends and neighbours.

(3) She would have to brave the whole world.

(4) She would face the risk of losing the love and respect of her own husband and near relatives, and of her matrimonial home and happiness being shattered.

(S) If she is unmarried, she would apprehend that it would be difficult to secure an alliance with a suitable match from a respectable or an acceptable family.

(6) It would almost inevitably and almost invariably result in mental torture and suffering to herself.

(7) The fear of being taunted by others will always haunt her.

(8) She would feel extremely embarrassed in relating the incident to others being over powered by a feeling of shame on account of the upbringing in a tradition bound society where by and large sex is taboo.

(9) The natural inclination would be to avoid giving publicity to the incident lest the family name and family honour is brought into controversy.

(10) The parents of an unmarried girl as also the husband and members of the husband's family of a married woman would also more often than not, want to avoid publicity on account of the fear of social stigma on the family name and family honour.

(11) The fear of the victim herself being considered to be promiscuous or in some way responsible for the incident regardless of her innocence.

(12) The reluctance to face interrogation by the investigating agency, to face the court, to face the cross examination by Counsel for the culprit, and the risk of being disbelieved, acts as a deterrent.

In view of these factors the victims and their relatives are not too keen to bring the culprit to books. And when in the face of these factors the crime is brought to light there is a built-in assurance that the charge is genuine rather than fabricated.

She is not an accomplice

In State of Maharashtra Vs Chandraprakash Kewalchand Jain, AIR 1990 SC 658, Supreme Court held that prosecutrix of a sex - offence cannot be put on par with an accomplice.

She is in fact a victim of the crime. The Evidence Act nowhere says that her evidence cannot be accepted unless it is corroborated in material particulars. She is undoubtedly a competent witness under S.118 of Evidence Act and her evidence must receive the same weight as is attached to an injured in cases of physical violence. The same degree of care and caution must attach in the evaluation of her evidence as in the case of an injured complainant or witness and no more. What is necessary is that the Court must be alive to and conscious of the fact that it is dealing with the evidence of a person who is interested in the outcome of the charge levelled by her, if the Court keeps this in mind and feels satisfied that it can act on the evidence of the prosecutrix, there is no rule of law or practice incorporated in the Evidence Act similar to illustration (b) to S.114 which requires it to look for corroboration. If for some reason the Court is hesitant to place implicit reliance on the testimony of the prosecutrix it may look for evidence which may lend assurance to her testimony short of corroboration required in the case of an accomplice. The nature of evidence required to lend assurance to the testimony of the prosecutrix is an adult and of of full understanding the Court is entitled to base a conviction on her evidence unless the same is shown to be infirm and not trustworthy. If the totality of the circumstances appearing on the record of the case disclose that the prosecutrix does not have a strong motive to falsely involve the person charged, the Court should ordinarily have no hesitation in accepting her evidence. We have, therefore, no doubt in our minds that ordinarily the evidence of a prosecutrix who does not lack understanding must be accepted."

Evidence Of Victim Stands on par with Injured witness

In a series of Judgments the Supreme Court held that the evidence of a victim of sexual assault stands on par with evidence of an injured witness.

Just as a witness who has sustained an injury (which is not shown or believed to be self inflicted) is the best witness in the sense that he is least likely to exculpate the real offender, the evidence of a victim of a sex-offence is entitled to great weight, absence of corroboration notwithstanding. And while corroboration in the form of eye witness account of an independent witness may often be forthcoming in physical assault cases, such evidence cannot be expected in sex offences, having regard to the very nature of the offence. It would therefore be adding insult to injury to insist on corroboration drawing inspiration from the rules devised by the courts in the Western World. Obeisance to which has perhaps become a habit presumably on account of the colonial hangover.

Minor contradictions in her testimony not crucial

In the case of State of Punjab v. Gurmit Singh, 1996 (2) SCC 384, the Supreme Court pointed out as follows:

"Rape is not merely a physical assault — it is often destructive of the whole personality of the victim. A murderer destroys the physical body of his victim, a rapist degrades the very soul of the helpless female. The Courts, therefore, shoulder a great responsibility while trying an accused on charges of rape. They must deal with such cases with utmost sensitivity. The Courts should examine the broader probabilities of a case and not get swayed by minor contradictions or insignificant discrepancies in the statement of the prosecutrix, which are not of a fatal nature, to throw out an otherwise reliable prosecution case. If evidence of the prosecutrix inspires confidence, it must be relied upon without seeking corroboration of her statement in material particulars. If for some reason the Court finds it difficult to place implicit reliance on her testimony, it may look for evidence which may lend assurance to her testimony, short of corroboration required in the case of an accomplice. The testimony of the prosecutrix must be appreciated in the background of the entire case and the Trial Court must be alive to its responsibility and be sensitive while dealing with cases involving sexual molestations."

In State of Punjab v. Gurmit Singh & Ors., 1996 (2) SCC 384, this Court has observed :

"The courts must, while evaluating evidence, remain alive to the fact that in a case of rape, no self - respecting woman would come forward in a court just to make a humiliating statement against her honour such as is involved in the commission of rape on her. In cases involving sexual molestation, supposed considerations which have no material effect on the veracity of the prosecution case of even discrepancies in the statement of the prosecutrix should not, unless the discrepancies are such which are of fatal nature, be allowed to throw out an otherwise reliable prosecution case. The inherent bashfulness of the females and the tendency to conceal outrage of sexual aggression are factors which the courts should not overlook…"

When Corroboration necessary?

It is also well settled principle of law that corroboration as a condition for judicial reliance on the testimony of the prosecutrix is not a requirement of law but a guidance of prudence under given circumstances. [State of Himachal Pradesh v. Asha Ram, AIR 2006 SC 381 : 2006 SCC (Cri) 296]

In Bharwada Bhoginbhai Hirjibhai v. State of Gujarat, 1983 (3) SCC 217 the Supreme Court held as follows;

"We are therefore of the opinion that if the evidence of the victim does not suffer from any basic infirmity, and the probabilities-factors does not render it unworthy of credence, as a general rule, there is no reason to insist on corroboration except from the medical evidence, where, having regard to the circumstances of the case, medical evidence can be expected to be forthcoming, subject to the following qualification:

Corroboration may be insisted upon when a woman having attained majority is found in a compromising position and there is a likelihood of her having levelled such an accusation on account of the instinct of self-preservation. Or when the 'probabilities-factor' is found to be out of tune"

In Sadashiv Ramrao Hadbe v. State of Maharashtra, 2006 (10) SCC 92 : 2007 (1) SCC (Cri) 161 Supreme Court reiterated that the sole testimony of the prosecutrix could be relied upon if it inspires the confidence of the Court:

"9. It is true that in a rape case the accused could be convicted on the sole testimony of the prosecutrix, if it is capable of inspiring confidence in the mind of the Court. If the version given by the prosecutrix is unsupported by any medical evidence or the whole surrounding circumstances are highly improbable and belie the case set up by the prosecutrix, the Court shall not act on the solitary evidence of the prosecutrix. The Courts shall be extremely careful in accepting the sole testimony of the prosecutrix when the entire case is improbable and unlikely to happen."

The Test to be adopted by Courts

Why should the evidence of a girl or a woman who complains of rape or sexual molestation be viewed with doubt, disbelief or suspicion? The court while appreciating the evidence of a prosecutrix may look for some assurance of her statement to satisfy its judicial conscience, since she is a witness who is interested in the outcome of the charge leveled by her, but there is no requirement of law to insist upon corroboration of her statement to base conviction of an accused. The evidence of a victim of sexual assault stands almost on a par with the evidence of an injured witness and to an extent is even more reliable.

Corroboration as a condition for judicial reliance on the testimony of the prosecutrix is not a requirement of law but a guidance of prudence under given circumstances. It must not be overlooked that a woman or a girl subjected to sexual assault is not an accomplice to the crime but is a victim of another person's lust and it is improper and undesirable to test her evidence with a certain amount of suspicion, treating her as if she were an accomplice. Inferences have to be drawn from a given set of facts and circumstances with realistic diversity and not dead uniformity lest that type of rigidity in the shape of rule of law is introduced through a new form of testimonial tyranny making justice a casualty. Courts cannot cling to a fossil formula and insist upon corroboration even if, taken as a whole, the case spoken of by the victim of sex crime strikes the judicial mind as probable." [Ranjit Hazarika vs. State of Assam(1998) 8 SCC 635]

Word of Caution by the Supreme Court

Supreme Court in Raju v. State of Madhya Pradesh, 2008 (15) SCC 133 : AIR 2009 SC 858 observed that the basic principle is that ordinarily the evidence of a prosecutrix should not be suspected and should be believed, more so as her statement has to be evaluated on a par with that of an injured witness and if the evidence is reliable, no corroboration is necessary. Undoubtedly, the aforesaid observations must carry the greatest weight and we respectfully agree with them, but at the same time they cannot be universally and mechanically applied to the facts of every case of sexual assault which comes before the Court.

"It cannot be lost sight of that rape causes the greatest distress and humiliation to the victim but at the same time a false allegation of rape can cause equal distress, humiliation and damage to the accused as well. The accused must also be protected against the possibility of false implication, particularly where a large number of accused are involved. It must, further, be borne in mind that the broad principle is that an injured witness was present at the time when the incident happened and that ordinarily such a witness would not tell a lie as to the actual assailants, but there is no presumption or any basis for assuming that the statement of such a witness is always correct or without any embellishment or exaggeration."