Judicial Dictionary

Benefit of doubt

Exaggerated devotion to the rule of benefit of doubt must not nurture fanciful doubts or lingering suspicion and thereby destroy social defence. Justice cannot be made sterile on the plea that it is better to let hundred guilty escape than punish an innocent. Letting guilty escape is not doing justice according to law. (See Gurbachan Singh vs. Satpal Singh and others (AIR 1990 SC 209). Prosecution is not required to meet any and every hypothesis put forward by the accused (See State of U.P. vs. Ashok Kumar Srivastava (AIR 1992 SC 840). Reasonable doubt is not an imaginary, trivial or merely possible doubt, but a fair doubt based upon reason and common sense. It must grow out of the evidence in the case. If a case is proved perfectly, it is argued that it is artificial; if a case has some flaws inevitable because human beings are prone to err, it is argued that it is too imperfect. One wonders whether in the meticulous hypersensitivity to eliminate a rare innocent from being punished, many guilty persons must be allowed to escape.

Proof beyond reasonable doubt is a guideline, not a fetish. (See Inder Singh and another vs. State (Delhi Admn.) (AIR 1978 SC 1091). Vague hunches cannot take place of judicial evaluation. “A Judge does not preside over a criminal trial, merely to see that no innocent man is punished. A Judge also presides to see that a guilty man, does not escape. Both are public duties.” (Per Viscount Simen in Stirland vs. Director of Public Prosecutor (1944 AC (PC) 315) quoted in State of U.P. vs. Anil Singh (AIR 1988 SC 1998). Doubts would be called reasonable if they are free from a zest for abstract speculation. Law cannot afford any favourite other than truth.

In matters such as this, it is appropriate to recall the observations of this Court in Shivaji Sahebrao Bobade vs. State of Maharashtra (1974) 1 SCR 489 (492-493) :

“. . . . . . .The dangers of exaggerated devotion to the rule of benefit of doubt at the expense of social defence and to the soothing sentiment that all acquittals are always good regardless of justice to the victim and the community, demand special emphasis in the contemporary context of escalating crime and escape. The judicial instrument has a public accountability. The cherished principles or golden thread of proof beyond reasonable doubt which runs through the web of our law should not be stretched morbidly to embrace every hunch, hesitancy and degree of doubt. . . . . . . . . . .”

“. . . . . . . . . .The evil of acquitting a guilty person light heartedly as a learned author Clanville Williams in ‘proof of guilt’ has sapiently observed, goes much beyond the simple fact that, just one guilty person has gone unpunished. If unmerited acquittals become general, they tend to lead to a cynical disregard of the law, and this in turn leads to a public demand for harsher legal presumptions against indicated ‘persons’ and more severe punishment of those who are found guilty. Thus too frequent acquittals of the guilty may lead to a ferocious penal law, eventually eroding the judicial protection of the guiltless. . . . . . . . .”

“. . . . . . . .a miscarriage of justice may arise from the acquittal of the guilty no less than from the conviction of the innocent. . . . . . . . .”

The position was again illuminatingly highlighted in State of U.P. vs. Krishna Gopal (AIR 1988 SC 2154). Similar view was also expressed in Gangadhar Behera and others vs. State of Orissa (2002 (7) Supreme 276).

AIR 2003 SC 3617 : (2003) 2 Suppl. SCR 35 : (2003) 7 SCC 643 : JT 2003 (6) SC 348 : (2003) 6 SCALE 34 : (2003) CriLJ SC 3876

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