The Supreme Court has held that altering charges without notifying the accused and his advocate caused grave prejudice, violating principles of natural justice. The Court acquitted the appellant in a triple murder case due to the absence of legal representation during the hearing and the lack of notice regarding the alteration in charges. The appellant (accused no. 2) was convicted of murder under Section 302 read with Section 34 IPC and concealment of evidence (Section 201 IPC). 17 accused were involved in a triple murder case. The Trial Court had acquitted several accused, and the High Court had acquitted three more. The appellant challenged the High Court's judgment based on the absence of legal representation and the modification of the charge under Section 34 IPC.

A two-judge Bench of Justice Abhay S. Oka and Justice Pankaj Mithal held that “There is no overt act attributed to the appellant by any prosecution witness in the assault on deceased Uma Prasad. It is difficult to infer a prior meeting of minds in this case. There is no material to prove the existence of common intention which is the necessary ingredient of Section 34 of IPC. In this case, there is no overlap between a common object and a common intention. Therefore, the conviction of the appellant under Section 302, read with Section 34 will have to be set aside.”

However, the Court found that evidence of two eyewitnesses was consistent with the appellant's role in disposing of the victim's body. The appellant's conviction under Section 201 of IPC (causing the disappearance of evidence) was upheld.

Senior Advocate Dama Sheshadri Naidu appeared for the Appellant and Advocate Sunny Choudhary appeared for the Respondent.

The appellant argued that the High Court's proceedings were illegal due to the absence of his advocate. The appellant contended there was no evidence of common intention, a prerequisite for Section 34 IPC. Accused were not given notice about the alteration in the charge. This caused prejudice to the appellant. Prosecution emphasized the seriousness of the crime and opposed interference in the High Court's judgment.

The Supreme Court noted that the appellant's advocate was absent during the hearing, which violated principles of natural justice. The Court said, “The impugned judgment does not refer to any submission canvassed on behalf of the appellant. The High Court has, thus, committed illegality by deciding the appeal against the conviction preferred by the appellant without hearing the appellant or his advocate. After finding that the advocate appointed by the appellant was absent, the High Court ought to have appointed a lawyer to espouse his cause.”

The Court said that the appellate court has the power to alter or add charges under Section 216 of Cr.PC. However, the accused must be notified about any proposed alteration or addition of charges. The Court added, “it was necessary for the Appellate Court to put the appellant to notice that it intended to convict him with the aid of Section 34 of IPC, for which a charge was not framed.”

The Court added, “Therefore, grave prejudice has been caused to the appellant by altering the charge without giving any notice to the appellant or his advocate about the charge. The reason is that there was no opportunity available to the accused to argue that there was no evidence on record to prove the existence of common intention, which is the necessary ingredient of Section 34 of IPC.”

The Court said the impugned judgment didn't provide any reasoning or discussion about the applicability of Section 34 of IPC (common intention). The Court added, “there is a complete absence of any reason for concluding that Section 34 of IPC was attracted. The High Court has not recorded a finding that there was sufficient evidence to prove that the four accused who were ultimately convicted had done the criminal act in furtherance of a common intention.”

The Court examined the evidence on record rather than sending it back to the High Court for remand considering that the incident was dated back to 1987.

The appellant's conviction under Section 302 read with Section 34 IPC was set aside due to lack of evidence of common intention. The conviction under Section 201 IPC was upheld. Since the appellant had already served the sentence for the latter charge, the bail bonds were cancelled.

Accordingly, the appeal was partly allowed by the Court.

Cause Title: Chandra Pratap Singh v. State of M.P., [2023INSC887]

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