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[Sexual Harassment]: SC sets aside conviction of accused, holds it is duty of prosecution to lead best evidence lest adverse inference shall follow

The SC on July 28, 2020 {Parminder Kaur @ P.P. Kaur @ Soni vs State of Punjab} held that ordinarily,   the   Supreme   Court   ought   not   to   re­appreciate evidence.   However, it was held that where   the   courts   below   have   dealt   with   the material ­on­ record in a cavalier or mechanical manner which is likely to   cause   gross   injustice,   then   the   Court   in   such   exceptional circumstances may justifiably re­appraise the evidence to advance the cause of justice. It was held that there is no gainsaying that such re­assessment ought not to take place routinely and ought not to become substitution of an otherwise plausible view taken by the Courts below.

It was held by the Bench, comprising of Justice N.V. RAMANA, Justice SURYA KANT & Justice KRISHNA MURARI, that the Courts below failed in making the desired attempt to delve deep into the factual matrix of this case. It was held that many aspects have completely been ignored or only dealt with hastily. It was held that the reasoning is generic and is premised upon generalisations which may not be necessarily true always.   It was held that it is indisputable that parents would not ordinarily endanger the reputation of their minor daughter merely to falsely implicate their opponents, but such clichés ought not to be the sole basis of dismissing reasonable doubts created and/or defences set out by the accused.

Similarly, It was held that the five­ day delay in registration of the FIR, in the facts and circumstances of this case, gains importance as the father of the victim is an eye­witness to a part of the occurrence. It was held that it is difficult to appreciate that a father would await a second incident to happen before moving the law into motion. It was observed that sweeping assumptions concerning delays in registration of FIRs for sexual offences, send a problematic signal to society and create opportunities for abuse by miscreants. Instead, the facts of each individual case and the behaviour of the parties involved ought to be analysed by courts before reaching a conclusion on the reason and effect of delay in registration of FIR. In the facts of the present case, it was held that neither is Section 366A by itself a sexual offence in the strict sense nor do the inactions of the prosecutrix or her father inspire confidence on genuineness of the prosecution story. It was held that no steps were taken to avail of medical examination of the victim, nor was the Panchayat or any social forum approached for any form of redress till the occurrence of the second alleged incident.

It was held that it is the duty of the prosecution to lead the best evidence in its possession, and failure to do so ought to lead to an adverse inference.

The present Criminal Appeal before the SC had been preferred by Parminder Kaur, impugning the judgment of the High Court of Punjab and Haryana through which her challenge to a judgment passed by the Additional Sessions Judge, Barnala was turned down, thereby confirming her conviction of three years rigorous imprisonment and fine of Rs. 2000 under Sections 366A and 506 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860 (“IPC”). The trial Court had summarily disregarded the contradictions highlighted   by   the   defence   side,   on   the   premise   that   such contradictions had no material bearing and that there was no reason to disbelieve the prosecutrix. The High Court too had opined that PW­1 and   PW­2   have   completely   corroborated   each   other   and   their testimonies   were   impeccable.  

The SC held that these reasons  are not only contrary to the record but they also lead to an impermissible reversal of the burden of proof imposed in criminal trials.  It was held that there   are   numerous   clear   contradictions   between   the testimonies of these two star ­witnesses, which it finds fatal to the prosecution case.

It was held that in addition to the inconsistencies which cast a serious shadow of doubt over the version of events put forth by the prosecution, the accounts of PW­1 and PW­2 are superficial and lack detail. It was held that important links of the story, including what happened in the crucial five minutes when the girl was locked inside the room or how the male tenant reacted, are missing.

The SC held that under   the   Code   of   Criminal   Procedure,   1973   after   the prosecution closes its evidence and examines all its witnesses, the accused is given an opportunity of explanation through Section 313(1)(b). It was held that any alternate version of events or interpretation proffered by the accused must be carefully analysed and considered by the trial Court in compliance with the mandate of Section 313(4). It was held that such opportunity is a valuable right of the accused to seek justice and defend oneself. It was held that failure of the trial Court to fairly apply its mind and consider the defence, could endanger the conviction itself. It was held that unlike the prosecution which needs to prove its case beyond reasonable doubt, the accused merely   needs   to   create   reasonable   doubt   or   prove   their   alternate version   by   mere   preponderance   of   probabilities. Thus, it was held that once   a plausible version has been put forth in defence at the Section 313 CrPC examination stage, then it is for the prosecution to negate such defence plea.

The SC held it is of the considered view that the prosecution has failed to discharge its burden of proving the guilt of the appellant under Section 366A and 506 of the IPC beyond reasonable doubt. Thus, the   appeal   was   allowed   and   the conviction and sentence awarded by the Courts below were set aside by the SC. The appellant was acquitted and consequently set free by the SC.

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