CIVIL

Power of the Indian Supreme Court to interfere with a judgment of acquittal

The power of the Supreme Court to interfere with a judgment of acquittal-1958

The extent of the power of the Supreme Court to interfere with a judgment of acquittal was raised before us by the respondent’s counsel and it was contended that the jurisdiction exercised by this Court under Art. 136 was the same as that exercised by the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council and reliance was placed on a minority judgment by Venkatarama Aiyar, J., in Aher Raja Khima vs. The State of Saurashtra (1955) 2 SCR 1285 where the learned judge after discussing the various Privy Council judgments and quoting a passage from the judgment of this court in Pritam Singh vs. The State (1950) SCR 453(B) observed:

“The preceding article referred to in the opening passage is clearly Article 134. Article 134(1) confers a right of appeal to this Court in certain cases, in terms unqualified, on questions both of fact and law, and if the scope of an appeal under Art. 136 is to be extended likewise to questions of fact, then Article 134(1) would become superfluous. It is obvious that the intention of the Constitution in providing for an appeal on facts under Art. 134(1)(a) and (b) was to exclude it under Art. 136, and it strongly supports the conclusion reached in Pritam Singh vs. The State (B) that like the Privy Council this Court would not function as a further court of appeal on facts in criminal cases.”

The State Govt. Madhya Pradesh vs. Ramakrishna Ganpatrao Limsey AIR 1954 SC 20 (C) was also referred to by counsel for the respondent and it was contended that the Supreme Court should not interfere with the order of the High Court merely on the ground that it took a different view of the facts. That was an appeal which had been brought on a certificate by the High Court and not by Special Leave of this Court. That judgment was considered by a Constitution Bench in State of Madras vs. Gurviah Naidu and Co. Ltd. (S) AIR 1956 SC 158(D) and S. R. Das, Acting C. J., delivering the judgment of the court pointed out that that was a decision of a bench of three judges and not of a Constitution Bench and the observation that there was no provision corresponding to S. 417 of the Criminal Procedure Code only emphasised that this Court should not in appeal by Special Leave interfere with the order of acquittal passed by the High Court merely for correcting errors of fact or of law. Gurviah Naidu’s case (D) was an appeal against a judgment of acquittal and this court reversed the judgment saying:

“In our view, the High Court erred in holding that the prosecution had failed to establish their case and in acquitting the accused.”

This case negatives the contention that under Art. 136 interference by this Court with findings of High Courts in judgments of acquittal is not intended. Even in AIR 1954 SC 20 (C) Mahajan, J., was of the opinion that the Supreme Court can interfere where the High Court “acts perversely or otherwise improperly or has been deceived by fraud.”

 In Pritam Singh vs. The State (B) Fazal Ali J., after a careful examination of Art. 136 along with the preceding articles stated the scope of the appeal under Art. 136 to be:

“Generally speaking, this court will not grant special leave, unless it is shown that exceptional and special circumstances exist, that substantial and grave injustice has been done and that the case in question presents features of sufficient gravity to warrant a review of the decision appealed against.”

Even the Privy Council in laying down the permissible limits for review in criminal matters included things “So irregular or so outrageous as to shake the very basis of justice”. See Mohinder Singh vs. The King 59 Ind App 233 (E).

An instance of this principle is the decision of the Privy Council in Stephen Seneviratne vs. The King AIR 1936 PC 289 (F) which will be discussed later in this judgment and which has been approved of by this Court.

Interpreting the following words of S. 205 of the Government of India Act 1935 “any judgment, decree or final order of a court” and “it shall be the duty of every High Court in British India to consider in every case”, Lord Thankerton in King Emperor vs. Sibnath Bannerji 72 Ind app 241 (G) said:

“The purpose of the provision is to confer a right of appeal in every case that involves substantial question of law as to the interpretation of the Act or of any Order in Council made thereunder.”

One of the questions for decision in that case was whether an appeal lay in cases of habeas corpus. Lord Thankerton there observed:

“In the absence of an express exception of habeas corpus cases, and having in view, the terms and purpose of the section, their Lordships are unable to limit the terms of the section by mere construction so as to exclude these cases from its operation.”

In Art. 136 the use of the words “Supreme Court may in its discretion grant special leave to appeal from any judgment, decree, determination, sentence or order in any cause or matter passed or made by any court or tribunal in the territory of India” show that in criminal matters no distinction can be made as a matter of construction between a judgment of conviction or acquittal. In Bhagwan Das vs. The State of Rajasthan, (S) AIR 1957 SC 589 (H) the following observation of the Judicial Committee of Privy Council in Stephen Seneviratne vs. The King (F):

“………there are here no grounds on the evidence, taken as a whole, upon which any tribunal could properly as a matter of legitimate inference, arrive at a conclusion that the appellant was guilty……….”

was quoted with approval and after an examination of all the facts and circumstances of the case the Supreme Court reversed the judgment of conviction by the High Court under Art. 136. The question for decision in the present case is whether it falls within the limits laid down in the abovementioned cases. This court will not readily interfere with the findings of fact given by the High Court but if the High Court acts perversely or otherwise improperly interference will be called for.


Ref: AIR 1958 SC 61 : (1958) SCR 580 : (1958) CriLJ SC 232

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