Requirement For Disclosures In Criminal Trial Can't Step Over Right To Privacy : Supreme Court Acquits Woman Accused Of Killing Newborn

Gyanvi Khanna

28 Oct 2023 3:50 PM GMT

  • Requirement For Disclosures In Criminal Trial Cant Step Over Right To Privacy : Supreme Court Acquits Woman Accused Of Killing Newborn

    The trial court's verdict "reinforces cultural stereotypes and gendered identities", the Supreme Court said.

    While deciding a criminal appeal, the Supreme Court recently considered a significant question of law- whether an accused woman is required to disclose aspects relating to her private life in a criminal trial.The Court was deciding an appeal filed by a woman who was accused of killing her own child and was convicted for murder and sentenced to life imprisonment.In the context of Section 313...

    While deciding a criminal appeal, the Supreme Court recently considered a significant question of law- whether an accused woman is required to disclose aspects relating to her private life in a criminal trial.

    The Court was deciding an appeal filed by a woman who was accused of killing her own child and was convicted for murder and sentenced to life imprisonment.

    In the context of Section 313 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, the Court said : "Although there is a requirement by law to disclose the aspects required to adjudicate in a criminal matter such duty cannot unreasonably and unwarrantedly step over the fundamental right of privacy."

    A bench comprising Justices Abhay S Oka and Sanjay Karol considered two questions in the appeal :

    To what extent does the right to privacy shield the matters concerning the personal life of a woman accused of committing a crime, particularly when the prosecution has failed to discharge its duty?

    To what extent are the rights or duties of the accused to explain the incriminating circumstances appearing against them in a statement under Section 313 of the Code of Criminal Procedure?

    In the matter at hand, the case of the prosecution was that the convict-appellant had relations with a co-villager, namely, Baiga Gond, as a result of which she conceived a child. She, upon giving birth, allegedly killed this child and threw the corpse into a dabri (small water bodypond).

    In the Section 313 CrPC statement, the accused had admitted that she was pregnant. Since the accused was living alone, the trial court made further inferences from her admission of pregnancy and proceeded to hold her guilty of the murder of the child.

    The Supreme Court took a critical view of the approach taken by the trial court, which was affirmed by the High Court.

    “Unfortunately, the view taken, and the language adopted by both the Courts below lays to waste such a right inherent in the convict-appellant. It is apparent that the guilt has been placed on her without any solid foundation thereto since no relationship of any nature whatsoever could be established between her and the deceased child discovered in the dabri.”

    In this backdrop, the Court framed asked :

    "whether the convict-appellant has no right of privacy of not disclosing the prosecution or the Court as to what happened to her child which she was carrying in her womb, particularly when the prosecution failed to discharge the initial burden and onus of establishing the deceased, in any manner to be related to the accused?

    Whether it could be said that the convict-appellant was obliged to disclose her pregnancy, if so, and what became of such child that she was allegedly carrying?... Is not, inherent in a lady the right of confidentiality and privacy in matters concerning her personal life, of not disclosing any circumstances, as may be required by law?

    Addressing the findings arrived by both the Courts, the Supreme Court said :

    The conclusion drawn is simply on the basis that the convict-appellant was a woman living alone and had been pregnant (as admitted in the statement under 313 CrPC)….Such a view being taken, i.e., thrusting upon a woman the guilt of having killed a child without any proper evidence, simply because she was living alone in the village, thereby connecting with one another two unrelated aspects; reinforces the cultural stereotypes and gendered identities which this Court has explicitly warned against.”

    The Bench of Justices Abhay S. Oka and Sanjay Karol, opined that the judgment under challenge, makes only general and sketchy observations, unlike the appreciation of evidence as is required by law, in respect of testimonies of the witnesses and other evidence. It went on to say that this approach cannot be appreciated, especially when the conviction rendered is for a serious offence, that is, Section 302 IPC.

    Court summarises principles related to Section 313

    The Court summarised various principles with respect to what may be required of the convict-appellant in her statement under Section 313 Cr.P.C. Driven through several set of precedents, these principles included:

    In such a statement, the accused may or may not admit involvement or any incriminating circumstance or may even offer an alternative version of events or interpretation. The accused may not be put to prejudice by any omission or inadequate questioning.

    The right to remain silent or any answer to a question which may be false shall not be used to his detriment, being the sole reason.”

    Basis these, the Court observed that negative inferences cannot be drawn for a question or incriminating circumstance not put to an accused while making a statement under Section 313 Cr.P.C. The Court further opined that the accused's statement, nowhere reflects an answer to a question concerning the particulars of the child.

    Discussing the law on privacy, the Court also noted that the essence of a woman's fundamental right to equality and privacy, regarding private matters of bodily and psychological integrity is the ability to make autonomous decisions about her own body and reproductive choices. It is entirely within the realm of privacy of a woman to decide whether or not to bear a child or abort her pregnancy (within the framework of law).

    Court's Observations

    At the outset, the Court observed that awarding the punishment of life imprisonment requires due appreciation of evidence and cannot be awarded mechanically and in a perfunctory manner. The law requires that the High Court, must, only after re-appreciation of evidence confirm or overturn the findings of fact returned by the Trial Court.

    Given that this appeal dates to the year 2010 and it will not be prudent to remand the matter to the High Court for consideration afresh, the Court proceeded to examine the evidence on record.

    After examining the testimonies of several prosecution witnesses, it was held that none of these witnesses could prove, much less beyond a reasonable doubt, the prosecution case of the accused having thrown the child in the dabri after delivery or having caused the death.

    Taking note of the appellant's statement, it was observed that she has categorically denied the accusation of having killed any child, much less the child in question. She stated that Baiga Gond, who had fathered the child she was carrying, in an endeavor to get rid of the child, forcibly tried to have her take some medicine. He pushed her into 'Suraj ki dabri' on her refusal, leading to her miscarriage.

    Law On Privacy

    The same questions resulted in the Court shedding its light on the aforementioned head. The Court categorically opined that:

    In searching for answers to the questions above, it is pertinent for us to intervene when structures of injustice and persecution deeply entrenched in patriarchy are destructive of constitutional freedom.”

    It was observed that the right to privacy is the underpinning of human dignity and is fundamental to the realization of human rights and cited the landmark judgment of K.S. Puttaswamy v. Union of India, (2017) 10 SCC 1.

    In furtherance to this, the Court also cited several leading decisions, like Suchita Srivastava v. Chandigarh Admn, XYZ v. The State of Gujarat & Ors, pertaining to termination of pregnancy and right of every woman to make reproductive choices.

    Court's Verdict

    Further, examining this case from the lens of circumstantial evidence, the Court before making any observations referred to several judgments and noted that that none of the witnesses has seen the convict-appellant throwing the deceased child into the dabri. Moreover, no conclusive proof, of any nature, of relationship had been put forth by the prosecution and no evidence has been led to cast doubt upon the version of the convict.

    In view of the same, the Court, while allowing the appeal, held:

    Having considered the gaps mentioned above in the prosecution case, we cannot agree with the learned Courts below that the circumstances conclusively point to the guilt of the convict-appellant, Indrakunwar…. We are constrained to observe that the High Court has confirmed the view of the Trial Court awarding life imprisonment without supplying any cogent reasons therefor.”


    Citation : 2023 LiveLaw (SC) 932

    Click Here To Read/Download Judgment 

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