The importance of witness in criminal trial

Indian Law Encyclopedia

Supreme Court in Himanshu Singh Sabharwal v. State of M.P. and Ors. (2008) 4 SCR 783, where this Court in paragraphs 14 and 15 has observed as under:

14. “Witnesses” as Benthem said: are the eyes and ears of justice. Hence, the importance and primacy of the quality of trial process. If the witness himself is incapacitated from acting as eyes and ears of justice, the trial gets putrefied and paralysed, and it no longer can constitute a fair trial. The incapacitation may be due to several factors like the witness being not in a position for reasons beyond control to speak the truth in the Court or due to negligence or ignorance or some corrupt collusion. Time has become ripe to act on account of numerous experiences faced by Courts on account of frequent turning of witnesses as hostile, either due to threats, coercion, lures and monetary considerations at the instance of those in power, their henchmen and hirelings, political clouts and patronage and innumerable other corrupt practices ingenuously adopted to smoother and stifle truth and realities coming out to surface rendering truth and justice, to become ultimate casualties. Broader public and societal interests require that the victims of the crime who are not ordinarily parties to prosecution and the interests of State represented by their prosecuting agencies do not suffer even in slow process but irreversibly and irretrievably, which if allowed would undermine and destroy public confidence in the administration of justice, which may ultimately pave way for anarchy, oppression and injustice resulting in complete breakdown and collapse of the edifice of rule of law, enshrined and jealously guarded and protected by the Constitution. There comes the need for protecting the witness. Time has come when serious and undiluted thoughts are to be bestowed for protecting witnesses so that ultimate truth is presented before the Court and justice triumphs and the trial is not reduced to mockery. The State has a definite role to play in protecting the witnesses, to start with at least in sensitive cases involving those in power, who has political patronage and could wield muscle and money power, to avert trial getting tainted and derailed and truth becoming a casualty. As a protector of its citizens it has to ensure that during a trial in Court the witness could safely depose truth without any fear of being haunted by those against whom he has deposed. Some legislative enactments like the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act, 1987 (in short the ‘TADA Act’) have taken note of the reluctance shown by witnesses to depose against dangerous criminals-terrorists. In a milder form also the reluctance and the hesitation of witnesses to depose against people with muscle power, money power or political power has become the order of the day. If ultimately truth is to be arrived at, the eyes and ears of justice have to be protected so that the interests of justice do not get incapacitated in the sense of making the proceedings before Courts mere mock trials as are usually seen in movies.

15. Legislative measures to emphasise prohibition against tampering with witness, victim or informant have become the imminent and inevitable need of the day. Conducts which illegitimately affect the presentation of evidence in proceedings before the Courts have to be seriously and sternly dealt with. There should not be any undue anxiety to only protect the interest of the accused. That would be unfair as noted above to the needs of the society. On the contrary, the efforts should be to ensure fair trial where the accused and the prosecution both get a fair deal. Public interest in the proper administration of justice must be given as much importance if not more, as the interests of the individual accused. In this Courts have a vital role to play.

15. Above judgment clearly enunciates the importance of witness in criminal trial. This is a case of murder of a Superintending Engineer. There is no manner of doubt that brutal assault was mounted on him which resulted into his death. The son of the deceased is seeking transfer of proceedings on ground of coercion and threat to the witnesses as well as doubtful sincerity of the investigating agency and prosecuting agency. In effective cross-examination by public prosecutor of the driver who resiled from the statement made during investigation speaks volumes about the sincerity/ effectiveness of the prosecuting agency. The necessity of fair trial hardly needs emphasis. The State has a definite role to play in protecting the witnesses, to start with at least in sensitive cases. The learned Judge has failed to take participatory role in the trial. He was not expected to act like a mere tape recorder to record whatever has been stated by the witnesses. Section 311 of the Code and Section 165 of the Evidence Act confers vast and wide powers on Court to elicit all necessary materials by playing an active role in the evidence collecting process. However, the record does not indicate that the learned Judge presiding the trial had exercised powers under Section 165 of the Evidence Act which is in a way complimentary to his other powers. It is true that there must be reasonable apprehension on the part of the party to a case that justice may not be done and mere allegation that there is apprehension that justice will not be done cannot be the basis for transfer. However, there is no manner of doubt that the reasonable apprehension that there would be failure of justice and Acquittal of the accused only because the witnesses are threatened is made out by the Petitioner.