What is the meaning of compelling reasons ?
If that is the true scope of an appeal under Section 417, where then does the doctrine of “compelling reasons” come in? And how do we fit it among, the powers of a Court under that section? The words “compelling reasons” are not a legislative expression. They are not found in Section 417. As far as I have been able to discover, it was first used in AIR 1952 SC 52, wherein it was observed,
“It is well established that in an appeal under S. 417, Criminal P.C., the High Court has full power to review the evidence upon which the order of acquittal was founded, but it is equally well settled that the presumption of innocence of the accused is further reinforced by his acquittal by the trial Court, and the findings of the trial Court which had the advantage of seeing the witnesses and hearing their evidence can be reversed only for very substantial and compelling reasons”.
Do the words “compelling reasons” in the above passage import a limitation on the powers of a Court hearing an appeal under Section 417 not applicable to a Court hearing appeals against conviction? If they do, then it is merely the old doctrine than appeals against dressed in a new garb, and the reasons for rejecting it as unsound are as powerful as those which found favour with he Privy Council in AIR 1934 PC 227 (2) and AIR 1945 PC 151.
But it is probable that these words were intended to express, as were the similar words of Lord Russell in AIR 1934 PC 227, that the Curt hearing an appeal under Section 417 should observe the rules which all appellate Courts should, before coming to a conclusion different from that of the trial Court. If so understood, the expression “compelling reasons” would be open to no comment. Neither would it be of any special significance in its application to appeals against acquittals any more than appeals against conviction.
But the expression has been quoted in later judgments, especially of the Courts below, as if it laid down that in appeals against acquittal, the standard of proof required of the appellant was far higher than what the law casts on appellants in other appeals, and as the words “compelling reasons” are vague and indefinite to a degree; the result has not seldom been that even when Judges hearing appeals under S. 417 were convinced of the guilt of the accused, they refrained from setting aside the order of acquittal owing to the dark and unknown prohibition contained in the expression. That is the impression which I have formed in the appeals which have come before me in this Court.
There is always a danger in taking a phrase, attractive and telling in its context, out of it, and erecting it into a judicial formula as if it laid down a principle universal in its application. And this danger is all the greater when the phrase is of undefined import, and relates to appreciation of evidence. It is in the interests of the public that crimes should be punished, and it is with this object that S. 417 confers on the State a right to appeal against acquittal.
To fetter this right through such expressions as “compelling reasons” would not merely be to legislate but to defeat the plain intention of the legislature that an accused in an appeal against acquittal should have only those rights which the State in an appeal against conviction or a respondent in a civil appeal has, and that he is to enjoy no special protection.
The fundamental objection to regarding the expression “compelling reasons” as a rigid formula governing the decision of an appeal under S. 417 is that it puts a judgment of acquittal, however rendered, in a position of vantage which the law did not accord to it, and throws around the accused who gets an order of acquittal in the trial Court a protection which the law did not intend to give him. In my judgment, this is a situation in which great mischief must result, and the interests of the public must suffer.
35. If the expression “compelling reasons” does no impose a restriction on the powers of a court hearing an appeal under S. 417, and if its true scope is to guide it in arriving at a decision, the question whether this Court can interfere with that decision on the ground that it is erroneous presents no difficulty. The decision would then be one on a question of fact depending upon the appreciation of evidence, and this court cannot, on the principles enunciated in AIR 1950 SC 169 (J)’, interfere with it.
Ref: AIR 1956 SC 217 : (1955) 2 SCR 1285 : (1956) CriLJ SC 421