A Supreme Court Bench of Justice Krishna Murari and Justice Sanjay Karol has held that a High Court should not decide on an appeal in the absence of records from the Trial Court.

The Bench also issued directions to the High Courts to ensure the digitization of all lower Court records.

Counsel Sandeep Sudhakar Deshmukh appeared for the appellant.

In this case, an appeal arose out of a judgment passed by the High Court whereby the appellant was convicted under the Prevention of Corruption Act, 1988. In the proceedings before the High Court, it was noted that the entire record of the Trial proceedings had been lost and was not traceable.

Two issues arose for consideration, which were

(i) Whether, in the absence of the records of the Court of Trial, the appellate Court could have upheld the conviction and enhanced the quantum of fine.

(ii) Whether, given the language employed under Section 385 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973, the situation constituted a violation of the accused’s fundamental rights under Article 21 of the Constitution of India.

The Apex Court observed that the "procedure established by law" in a criminal prosecution is a sacrosanct requirement. In that context, it was also said that "every step that makes the right of appeal fruitful is obligatory, and every action or inaction which stultifies it is unfair and, ergo, unconstitutional". In the same vein, it was said that "If a right of production of documents at the trial stage exists, it is a natural corollary that the High Court, sitting in appeal, must benefit from those documents. In the considered view of this Court, this is a demand of the abovementioned sacrosanct requirement".

Considering that documents such as witness statements, statements under Section 313 Cr.P.C. were neither available nor have been able to be reconstructed, the Court observed that upholding conviction in the absence of such documents cannot be said to be in consonance with the due process of law and fairness. It was also noted that once a violation of a right under Article 21 is established, that is undoubtedly sufficient to set aside a conviction.

In light of the same, it was observed that "The Court below, in our considered view, by taking a mutually contradictory view, proceeded to decide the appeal on merits sentencing the accused, forgetting that the challenge was also for conviction. And yet did not deal with the merits of the appeal, laying specific challenge to the judgment of conviction. The whole approach is illegal and erroneous. Firstly, it is observed that the record was missing, and then it casts the onus to produce the same on the Appellant".

Subsequently, it was held that the accused in an appeal has a right to have the record perused by the Appellate Court. In that context, it was said that "upholding a conviction by merely having noted that the counsel for the accused not having the record at the time of filing the appeal is “doubtful” and that “no one can believe” the appeal would have been filed without perusing the record, as observed by the High Court is not correct. The job of the Court of Appeal is not to depend on the lower Court's judgment to uphold the conviction but, based on the record available before it duly called from the Trial Court and the arguments advanced before it, to come to a conclusion thereon".

Allowing the appeal, the Court also touched upon the issue of the digitization of records. In that context, it was said that "Technology has, in the present time become increasingly enmeshed with the systems of dispute resolution and adjudication with the trends pointing leading to all the more interplay, both supplementary and complimentary between technology and law".

In that context, it passed the following directions:

1. The Registrar General of the High Courts shall ensure that in all cases of criminal trial, as well as civil suits, the digitization of records must be duly undertaken with promptitude at all District Courts, preferably within the time prescribed for filing an appeal within the laws of procedure.

2. The concerned District Judge, once the system of digitization along with the system of authentication of the digitized records is in place in their judgeship, to ensure that the records so digitized are verified as expeditiously as possible.

3. A continually updated record of Register of Records digitized shall be maintained with periodic reports being sent to the concerned High Courts for suitable directions.

Cause Title: Jitendra Kumar Rode v. Union of India

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