While setting aside the death sentence awarded to a man under Section 302 IPC for murdering his wife and children in the Lakhimpur district in Uttar Pradesh in 2010, the Supreme Court has observed that it is the duty of the Court to provide meaningful legal aid to the accused at the State's expense.

The three-judge Bench of CJI UU Lalit, Justice S. Ravindra Bhat, and Justice J.B. Pardiwala also held that the State must ensure a fair defence to an accused, and it is the duty of the court to see and ensure that an accused put on a criminal trial is effectively represented by a defence counsel.

Senior Counsel S. Niranjan Reddy appeared for the Appellant-Accused while Counsel Adarsh Upadhyay appeared for the State before the Apex Court.

The Bench also held, "Though the offence is gruesome and revolts the human conscience but an accused can be convicted only on legal evidence and if only a chain of circumstantial evidence has been so forged as to rule out the possibility of any other reasonable hypothesis excepting the guilt of the accused."

The Court held that in the event on account of indigence, poverty or illiteracy or any other disabling factor if an accused is not able to engage a counsel of his choice, it becomes the duty of the Court to provide him appropriate and meaningful legal aid at the State expense.

"What is meant by the duty of the State to ensure a fair defence to an accused is not the employment of a defence counsel for namesake. It has to be the provision of a counsel who defends the accused diligently to the best of his abilities," the Bench added.

Furthermore, it was also held, "While the quality of the defence or the caliber of the counsel would not militate against the guarantee to a fair trial sanctioned by Articles 21 and 22 of the Constitution, a threshold level of competence and due diligence in the discharge of his duties as a defence counsel would certainly be the constitutional guaranteed expectation."

The Court held that the presence of the Counsel on record means effective, genuine and faithful presence and not a mere farcical, sham or a virtual presence that is illusory, if not fraudulent.

In the 93-page judgment authored by Justice J.B. Pardiwala, the Bench held that indigence should never be a ground for denying fair trial or equal justice.

The Apex Court thus observed-

"Therefore, particular attention should be paid to appoint competent advocates, equal to handling the complex cases, not patronising gestures to raw entrants to the Bar. Sufficient time and complete papers should also be made available to the advocate chosen so that he may serve the cause of justice with all the ability at his command, and the accused also may feel confident that his counsel chosen by the court has had adequate time and material to defend him properly."

The Court held that this case provides the Bench an opportunity to remind the District and Sessions Judges across the country conducting sessions trials, more particularly relating to serious offences involving severe sentences, to appoint experienced lawyers who had conducted such cases in the past.

In this context, the Court held –

"It is desirable that in such cases senior advocate practising in the trial court shall be requested to conduct the case himself or herself on behalf of the undefended accused or at least provide good guidance to the advocate who is appointed as amicus curiae or an advocate from the legal aid panel to defend the case of the accused persons. Then only the effective and meaningful legal aid would be said to have been provided to the accused."

Accordingly, the Court allowed the appeals and set aside the conviction of the accused -Appellant under Section 302 IPC and acquitted him of all the charges that were levelled against him.

Cause Title - Ramanand @ Nandlal Bharti v. State of Uttar Pradesh

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