The Supreme Court has disapproved the practice of depositions of material witnesses not being placed on record.

The court also provided suggestions for amending the Supreme Court Rules 2013 to tackle this issue.

The Court was dealing with a case related to alcohol poisoning, resulting in death of seven innocent people, blindness in eleven people, and more than forty people sustaining injuries. In this case, the accused were convicted under Sections 302, 307 and 326 read with Section 120B of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), and Section 55(a), (h), (i) and Section 57 (A) (1) (ii) of the Abkari Act by the Kerala High Court and were awarded imprisonment for life.

The two-Judge Bench of Justice Abhay S. Oka and Justice Sanjay Karol said, “… we deem it appropriate to deprecate the practice of depositions of material witnesses not being placed on record, as recorded in our order dated 20.07.2023. We have observed that such practices often cause repeated adjournments, which goes to the root of pendency and delay in disposing of appeals. Therefore, it is incumbent upon us to provide suggestions, in tackling this issue.”

The Bench further referred to Order XX of the Supreme Court Rules, 2013 which concerns criminal appeals.

Advocate Gaurav Aggarwal was appointed by the Court as an Amicus Curiae. Senior Advocate R. Basant appeared for the appellant/accused while Advocate Harshad V. Hameed appeared for the respondent/State.

Facts of the Case -

In 2003, the accused persons (A1, A3, A10, and A11) hatched a conspiracy to mix methyl alcohol with spirit to sell the same for an unlawful gain through the outlet operated by A1. In furtherance of this conspiracy, A10 and A11 brought 21 cans (each of 5L) containing methyl alcohol labeled as 'Biosole’ in the Maruti car owned by A10 to the residence of A1 and A3. Thereafter, A2, A7, and A8 brought spirit to the residence of A1 and A3 in the Ambassador car owned by A2. Methyl Alcohol supplied by A10 and A11 was mixed with this spirit and sold through A1's outlet. A4, A5, A6, A9 and A12 assisted A1 in this sale.

Seven persons, including A4 and A12, died after consuming the spurious liquor. PWs 1 - 9 and 11 -12 also fell ill after consuming the said liquor and PW70, DYSP, received information about the incident and commenced the investigation. After recording statements, an FIR was registered under Sections 302, 307 read with Section 34 of IPC and Section 57A of the Abkari Act. The defence did not adduce oral evidence. After carefully considering the evidence produced, the Trial Court convicted the accused persons. The Kerala High Court confirmed the judgment of the Trial Court against these accused persons.

The Supreme Court in view of the facts and circumstances of the case noted, “… the prosecution has succeeded in establishing the offence of criminal conspiracy of A10 and A11 with A1 (conviction of whom stands affirmed). … the argument on behalf of the appellants that the offence under Section 57(A)(1)(ii) of the Abkari Act is not attributable to them has to be rejected.”

The Court said that Section 55 applies to the transmission of methyl alcohol and that the methyl alcohol was first purchased by A11, then shown to be sold to different entities, however, it was provided to A1.

“These accused persons have been established to be in conspiracy for common objectives throughout. Therefore, the conviction of A10 and A11 has to be upheld under Section 55(a)(h) and (i) of the Abkari Act. … There can be no doubt left about the involvement of the accused persons before us, in the sale and mixing of methyl alcohol with spirit as part of the conspiracy, resulting in deaths and injuries to many innocent persons”, further observed the Court.

The Court also said that the conviction of A10 and A11 under Sections 302, 307, 326 and 120B IPC and 57(A)(1)(ii) of the Abkari Act has to be upheld. Hence, it directed the appellant to surrender before the Court concerned forthwith.

Before parting with the appeals, the Court considered sub-Rules 2 and 3 of Rule 5 of the Supreme Court Rules, 2013 which shows that physical copies of the original records are to be called for, in criminal appeals involving sentence of life or the death penalty and in all other cases, the calling of such records is subject to specific orders of a Bench of the Court. Therefore, the Court provided following suggestions –

i. Sub-Rule 3 be amended to insert the words ‘soft copy’ before the words ‘original records’, resulting in e-copies of the Original Records being requisitioned. This would facilitate a much quicker availability of such records to the court as also further a more environmentally conscious approach.

ii. Further, vide necessary amendment to the Rules such requisition of the soft copy of the record be extended to cases where leave is granted against an order of acquittal or conviction.

iii. Such soft copy of the records, once received be provided to the learned counsel appearing for the parties.

Accordingly, the Apex Court upheld the conviction of the appellant and directed the Registry to place a copy of the judgment before the CJI for his consideration and appropriate directions.

Cause Title- Sajeev v. State of Kerala (Neutral Citation: 2023 INSC 998)

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