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Phrase "Soon Before" Section 304B IPC Cannot Mean 'Immediately Before': Supreme Court Issues Guidelines For Trial In Dowry Death Cases

LIVELAW NEWS NETWORK
28 May 2021 2:02 PM GMT
Phrase Soon Before Section 304B IPC Cannot Mean Immediately Before: Supreme Court Issues Guidelines For Trial In Dowry Death Cases
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The Supreme Court observed that the phrase "soon before" as appearing in Section 304-B of the Indian Penal Code cannot be construed to mean 'immediately before'.The prosecution must establish existence of "proximate and live link" between the dowry death and cruelty or harassment for dowry demand by the husband or his relatives, the bench comprising CJI NV Ramana and Aniruddha Bose observed....

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The Supreme Court observed that the phrase "soon before" as appearing in Section 304-B of the Indian Penal Code cannot be construed to mean 'immediately before'.

The prosecution must establish existence of "proximate and live link" between the dowry death and cruelty or harassment for dowry demand by the husband or his relatives, the bench comprising CJI NV Ramana and Aniruddha Bose observed.

The court also observed that Section 304­B, IPC does not take a pigeonhole approach in categorizing death as homicidal or suicidal or accidental.

The bench observed thus while dismissing the appeal filed by accused who were convicted under Section 304B IPC. Section 304B (1) provides that 'dowry death' is where death of a woman is caused by burning or bodily injuries or occurs otherwise than under normal circumstances, within seven years of marriage, and it is shown that soon before her death, she was subjected to cruelty or harassment by her husband or any relative of her husband, in connection with demand for dowry.  

The accused contention was that the prosecution failed to prove that there was a demand for dowry and assuming there was one, it failed to prove that the demand was made proximate to the death of the deceased­-victim.

This made the court to look into interpretation of Section 304­B, IPC relates to the phrase "soon before".

"Being a criminal statute, generally it is to be interpreted strictly. However, where strict interpretation leads to absurdity or goes against the spirit of legislation, the courts may in appropriate cases place reliance upon the genuine import of the words, taken in their usual sense to resolve such ambiguities.", the court said.

To determine the intention of the legislature behind the inclusion of Section 304­B, IPC, the court discussed the legislative history of this Section and observed:

"14. Considering the significance of such a legislation, a strict interpretation would defeat the very object for which it was enacted. Therefore, it is safe to deduce that when the legislature used the words, "soon before" they did not mean "immediately before". Rather, they left its determination in the hands of the courts. The factum of cruelty or harassment differs from case to case. Even the spectrum of cruelty is quite varied, as it can range from physical, verbal or even emotional. This list is certainly not exhaustive. No straitjacket formulae can therefore be laid down by this Court to define what exacts the phrase "soon before" entails."

The court noted that similar view has been expressed in Kans Raj v. State of Punjab, (2000) 5 SCC 207 and Rajinder Singh v. State of Punjab, (2015) 6 SCC 477.

"15. Therefore, Courts should use their discretion to determine if the period between the cruelty or harassment and the death of the victim would come within the term "soon before". What is pivotal to the above determination, is the establishment of a "proximate and live link" between the cruelty and the consequential death of the victim.", the court said.

Once all the essential ingredients are established by the prosecution, the presumption under Section 113­B, Evidence Act mandatorily operates against the accused.

The court added that when the prosecution shows that 'soon before her death such woman has been subjected by such person to cruelty or harassment for, or in connection with, any demand for dowry', a presumption of causation arises against the accused under Section 113­B of the Evidence Act. Thereafter, the accused has to rebut this statutory presumption, it said.

"18. Therefore, once all the essential ingredients are established by the prosecution, the presumption under Section 113­B, Evidence Act mandatorily operates against the accused. This presumption of causality that arises can be rebutted by the accused.
19. The usage of rebuttable presumption of causality, under Section 113­B, Evidence Act, creates a greater responsibility on Judges, defense and prosecution. They need to be extra careful during conducting criminal trials relating to Section 304­B, IPC. In order to address this precarious situation, procedural law has some safeguards, which merits mentioning herein.", the court observed.

Section 304­B, IPC does not take a pigeonhole approach in categorizing death as homicidal or suicidal or accidental, 

The court also observed that Section 304­B, IPC  does not take a pigeonhole approach in categorizing death as homicidal or suicidal or accidental, as was done earlier.

"22...The reason for such non categorization is due to the fact that death occurring "otherwise than under normal circumstances" can, in cases, be homicidal or suicidal or accidental. However, the Section 304­B, IPC endeavors to also 16 address those situations wherein murders or suicide are masqueraded as accidents. 23. Therefore, if all the other ingredients of Section 304­B IPC are fulfilled, any death whether caused by burns or by bodily injury or occurring otherwise than under normal circumstances shall, as per the legislative mandate, be called a "dowry death" and the woman's husband or his relative "shall be deemed to have caused her death" unless proved otherwise. The section clearly specifies what constitutes the offence of dowry death and also identifies the single offender or multiple offenders who has or have caused the dowry death"

Guidelines

Taking note of the evidence on record, the bench upheld the conviction and dismissed the appeal and issued the following guidelines:

i. Section 304­B, IPC must be interpreted keeping in mind the legislative intent to curb the social evil of bride burning and dowry demand.

ii. The prosecution must at first establish the existence of the necessary ingredients for constituting an offence under Section 304­B, IPC. Once these ingredients are satisfied, the rebuttable presumption of causality, provided under Section 113­B, Evidence Act operates against the accused.

iii. The phrase "soon before" as appearing in Section 304­B, IPC cannot be construed to mean 'immediately before'. The prosecution must establish existence of "proximate and live link" between the dowry death and cruelty or harassment for dowry demand by the husband or his relatives.

iv. Section 304­B, IPC does not take a pigeonhole approach in categorizing death as homicidal or suicidal or accidental. The reason for such non categorization is due to the fact that death occurring "otherwise than under normal circumstances" can, in cases, be homicidal or suicidal or accidental.

v. Due to the precarious nature of Section 304­B, IPC read with 113­B, Evidence Act, Judges, prosecution and defence should be careful during conduction of trial.

vi. It is a matter of grave concern that, often, Trial Courts record the statement under Section 313, CrPC in a very casual and cursory manner, without specifically questioning the accused as to his defense. It ought to be noted that the examination of an accused under Section 313, CrPC cannot be treated as a mere procedural formality, as it based on the fundamental principle of fairness. This aforesaid provision incorporates the valuable principle of natural justice "audi alteram partem" as it enables the accused to offer an explanation for the incriminatory material appearing against him. Therefore, it imposes an obligation on the court to question the accused fairly, with care and caution.

vii. The Court must put incriminating circumstances before the accused and seek his response. A duty is also cast on the counsel of the accused to prepare his defense since the inception of the Trial with due caution, keeping in consideration the peculiarities of Section 304­B, IPC read with Section 113­B, Evidence Act.

viii. Section 232, CrPC provides that, "If, after taking the evidence for the prosecution, examining the accused and hearing the prosecution and the defence on the point, the Judge considers that there is no evidence that the accused committed the offence, the Judge shall record an order of acquittal". Such discretion must be utilized by the Trial Courts as an obligation of best efforts.

ix. Once the Trial Court decides that the accused is not eligible to be acquitted as per the provisions of Section 232, CrPC, it must move on and fix hearings specifically for 'defence evidence', calling upon the accused to present his defense as per the procedure provided under Section 233, CrPC, which is also an invaluable right provided to the accused.

x. In the same breath, Trial Courts need to balance other important considerations such as the right to a speedy trial. In this regard, we may caution that the above provisions should not be allowed to be misused as delay tactics.

xi. Apart from the above, the presiding Judge should follow the guidelines laid down by this Court while sentencing and imposing appropriate punishment.

xii. Undoubtedly, as discussed above, the menace of dowry death is increasing day by day. However, it is also observed that sometimes family members of the husband are roped in, even though they have no active role in commission of the offence and are residing at distant places. In these cases, the Court need to be cautious in its approach.

A three judge bench in Gurmeet Singh vs. State of Punjab (LL 2021 SC 262), in another judgment delivered today, reiterated the above guidelines.


Case: Satbir Singh Vs. State Of Haryana [CRA 1735­-1736 OF 2010]
Coram: CJI NV Ramana, Justice Aniruddha Bose
Citation: LL 2021 SC 260



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