A two Judge bench of Supreme Court of India comprising of Justice J S Khehar and Justice Adarsh Kumar Goel yesterday set aside the order of Delhi High Court which permitted the accused to re-examine Twelve prosecution witnesses, including the victim girl in the sensational UBER rape Case. [See the LiveLaw report here]
In the Judgment Justice Goel had elaborately discussed the scope and ambit of Section 311 of Code of Criminal Procedure 1973.
“The accused is entitled to be represented by a counsel of his choice, to be provided all relevant documents, to cross-examine the prosecution witnesses and to lead evidence in his defence. The object of provision for recall is to reserve the power with the court to prevent any injustice in the conduct of the trial at any stage. The power available with the court to prevent injustice has to be exercised only if the Court, for valid reasons, feels that injustice is caused to a party.
Such a finding, with reasons, must be specifically recorded by the court before the power is exercised. It is not possible to lay down precise situations when such power can be exercised. The Legislature in its wisdom has left the power undefined. Thus, the scope of the power has to be considered from case to case”. The Bench said.
a) Whether the Court is right in thinking that the new evidence is needed by it? Whether the evidence sought to be led in under Section 311 is noted by the Court for a just decision of a case?
b) The exercise of the widest discretionary power under Section 311 Cr.P.C. should ensure that the judgment should not be rendered on inchoate, inconclusive speculative presentation of facts, as thereby the ends of justice would be defeated.
c) If evidence of any witness appears to the Court to be essential to the just decision of the case, it is the power of the Court to summon and examine or recall and re-examine any such person.
d) The exercise of power under Section 311 Cr.P.C. should be resorted to only with the object of finding out the truth or obtaining proper proof for such facts, which will lead to a just and correct decision of the case.
e) The exercise of the said power cannot be dubbed as filling in a lacuna in a prosecution case, unless the facts and circumstances of the case make it apparent that the exercise of power by the Court would result in causing serious prejudice to the accused, resulting in miscarriage of justice.
f) The wide discretionary power should be exercised judiciously and not arbitrarily.
g) The Court must satisfy itself that it was in every respect essential to examine such a witness or to recall him for further examination in order to arrive at a just decision of the case.
h) The object of Section 311 Cr.P.C. simultaneously imposes a duty on the Court to determine the truth and to render a just decision.
i) The Court arrives at the conclusion that additional evidence is necessary, not because it would be impossible to pronounce the judgment without it, but because there would be a failure of justice without such evidence being considered.
j) Exigency of the situation, fair play and good sense should be the safe guard, while exercising the discretion. The Court should bear in mind that no party in a trial can be foreclosed from correcting errors and that if proper evidence was not adduced or a relevant material was not brought on record due to any inadvertence, the Court should be magnanimous in permitting such mistakes to be rectified.
k) The Court should be conscious of the position that after all the trial is basically for the prisoners and the Court should afford an opportunity to them in the fairest manner possible. In that parity of reasoning, it would be safe to err in favour of the accused getting an opportunity rather than protecting the prosecution against possible prejudice at the cost of the accused. The Court should bear in mind that improper or capricious exercise of such a discretionary power, may lead to undesirable results.
l) The additional evidence must not be received as a disguise or to change the nature of the case against any of the party.
m) The power must be exercised keeping in mind that the evidence that is likely to be tendered, would be germane to the issue involved and also ensure that an opportunity of rebuttal is given to the other party.
n) The power under Section 311 Cr.P.C. must therefore, be invoked by the Court only in order to meet the ends of justice for strong and valid reasons and the same must be exercised with care, caution and circumspection. The Court should bear in mind that fair trial entails the interest of the accused, the victim and the society and, therefore, the grant of fair and proper opportunities to the persons concerned, must be ensured being a constitutional goal, as well as a human right.
Applying the above principles in the present Case, the Court held that “It is difficult to approve the view taken by the High Court. Undoubtedly, fair trial is the objective and it is the duty of the court to ensure such fairness. Width of power under Section 311 Cr.P.C. is beyond any doubt. Not a single specific reason has been assigned by the High Court as to how in the present case recall of as many as 13 witnesses was necessary as directed in the impugned order. No fault has been found with the reasoning of the order of the trial court. The High Court rejected on merits the only two reasons pressed before it that the trial was hurried and the counsel was not competent. In the face of rejecting these grounds, without considering the hardship to the witnesses, undue delay in the trial, and without any other cogent reason, allowing recall merely on the observation that it is only the accused who will suffer by the delay as he was in custody could, in the circumstances, be hardly accepted as valid or serving the ends of justice. It is not only matter of delay but also of harassment for the witnesses to be recalled which could not be justified on the ground that the accused was in custody and that he would only suffer by prolonging of the proceedings. Certainly recall could be permitted if essential for the just decision but not on such consideration as has been adopted in the present case. Mere observation that recall was necessary “for ensuring fair trial” is not enough unless there are tangible reasons to show how the fair trial suffered without recall. Recall is not a matter of course and the discretion given to the court has to be exercised judiciously to prevent failure of justice and not arbitrarily. While the party is even permitted to correct its bona fide error and may be entitled to further opportunity even when such opportunity may be sought without any fault on the part of the opposite party, plea for recall for advancing justice has to be bona fide and has to be balanced carefully with the other relevant considerations including uncalled for hardship to the witnesses and uncalled for delay in the trial. Having regard to these considerations, we do not find any ground to justify the recall of witnesses already examined”.
Finally the Bench summarised the reasons for disapproving the view taken by the High Court as follows;
(i) The trial court and the High Court held that the accused had appointed counsel of his choice. He was facing trial in other cases also. The earlier counsel were given due opportunity and had duly conducted cross- examination. They were under no handicap;
(ii) No finding could be recorded that the counsel appointed by the accused were incompetent particularly at back of such counsel;
(iii) Expeditious trial in a heinous offence as is alleged in the present case is in the interests of justice;
(iv) The trial Court as well as the High Court rejected the reasons for recall of the witnesses;
(v) The Court has to keep in mind not only the need for giving fair opportunity to the accused but also the need for ensuring that the victim of the crime is not unduly harassed;
(vi) Mere fact that the accused was in custody and that he will suffer by the delay could be no consideration for allowing recall of witnesses, particularly at the fag end of the trial;
(vii) Mere change of counsel cannot be ground to recall the witnesses;
(viii) There is no basis for holding that any prejudice will be caused to the accused unless the witnesses are recalled;
(ix) The High Court has not rejected the reasons given by the trial court nor given any justification for permitting recall of the witnesses except for making general observations that recall was necessary for ensuring fair trial. This observation is contrary to the reasoning of the High Court indealing with the grounds for recall, i.e., denial of fair opportunity on account of incompetence of earlier counsel or on account of expeditious proceedings;
(x) There is neither any patent error in the approach adopted by the trial court rejecting the prayer for recall nor any clear injustice if such prayer is not granted.
Read the Judgment here.