Need To Strike Balance Between Legal Mandate To Disclose In Criminal Matters And Fundamental Right To Privacy: Supreme Court
The Supreme Court held that though there is a legal mandate to disclose the aspects required to adjudicate a criminal matter, such a duty cannot unreasonably and unwarrantedly step over the fundamental right to privacy.
The Court allowed the Appeal against the conviction by the High Court whereby, the decision of the Trial Court was affirmed. The Court expressed dismay over the High Court’s general and sketchy approach in re-appreciating the evidence. The Court held that awarding a life punishment requires due appreciation of evidence and cannot be awarded mechanically or not in a perfunctory manner.
The Bench comprising Justice Abhay S. Oka and Justice Sanjay Karol observed, “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”.
“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”, the Bench observed.
Senior Advocate Suryanarayana Singh appeared for the Appellant and Advocate Gautam Narayan appeared for the Respondent.
The Appellant was in a relationship with a co-villager and got pregnant. Upon giving birth, the Appellant allegedly killed the child and disposed of the body. An FIR was filed upon discovery of such a corpse. The Police filed a chargesheet against the Appellant under Section 302 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC). The Appellant approached the Court by way of a Criminal Appeal challenging the impugned judgment of the High Court whereby, the conviction judgment and sentencing order of the Trial Court was affirmed.
The Bench ascertained the following issues:
“1) 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?
2) 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?”.
The Bench noted that the High Court can overturn or affirm the decision of the Trial Court only after re-appreciation of evidence. The Court noted that the High Court, in the case, made general and sketchy observations. The Court expressed dismay over the High Court's approach of re-appreciating evidence in such a serious case under Section 302 of the IPC. The Court, after careful appreciation of the evidence, held that none of the witnesses could prove beyond a reasonable doubt, the contention that the Appellant had disposed of the body.
The Bench further ascertained the following issues: “1. 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?
2. 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?”.
Accordingly, the Court referred to the case of Joseph Shine v Union of India [2019 3 SCC 39] and reiterated that the right to privacy is the underpinning of human dignity and is fundamental to the realization of human rights. The Court held that the Appellant was not obligated to explain what happened to her pregnancy or expound on the circumstances leading to her miscarriage.
“Recently, this Court in XYZ v. The State of Gujarat & Ors. in the context of abortion reiterated that the right of every woman to make reproductive decisions, including the decision to terminate the pregnancy, is within her competence and authority. The right of every woman to make reproductive choices without undue interference from the state is central to the idea of human dignity. Deprivation of access to reproductive healthcare or emotional and physical well-being also injures the dignity of women”, the Bench noted.
The Court observed that the conclusion of the case is drawn based on the fact that the Appellant was a woman living alone and had been pregnant. The Court noted that such a view reinforces the cultural stereotypes and gendered identities that the courts had explicitly warned against.
The Bench noted, “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. 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). This, in the Court's view, was in itself suspect since she had been ‘deserted’ by her husband… 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”.
Additionally, the Court emphasized that the object of Section 313 of the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC) is to establish a dialogue between the court and the accused, aiding the court in reaching its final verdict. The Court held that such a process is based on the cardinal principle of natural justice, namely audi alterum partem. However, the Court expounded that such statements cannot become the sole basis for conviction and is neither a substantive nor substitute piece of evidence. Such statements are to be read as a whole and cannot be bifurcated and read in isolation.
The Bench noted, “Such a statement, as not on oath, does not qualify as a piece of evidence under Section 3 of the Indian Evidence Act, 1872; however, the inculpatory aspect as may be borne from the statement may be used to lend credence to the case of the prosecution… The circumstances not put to the accused while rendering his statement under the Section are to be excluded from consideration as no opportunity has been afforded to him to explain them… Non-compliance with the Section may cause prejudice to the accused and may impede the process of arriving at a fair decision”.
Therefore, the Court held that the prosecution’s case was entirely based on mere presumption without actual evidence to prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt.
Accordingly, the Court allowed the Appeal and set aside the impugned conviction judgment and sentencing order.
Cause Title: Indrakunwar v The State Of Chhattisgarh (2023 INSC 934)