Under the Indian Evidence Act all presumptions must come under one or the other class of the three classes mentioned in the Act, namely, (1) “may presume” (rebuttable), (2) “shall presume” (rebuttable) and (3) “conclusive presumptions” (irrebuttable). The term ‘presumption’ is used to designate an inference, affirmative or disaffirrnative of the existence a fact, conveniently called the “presumed fact” drawn by a judicial tribunal, by a process of probable reasoning from some matter of fact, either judicially noticed or admitted or established by legal evidence to the satisfaction of the tribunal. Presumption literally means “taking as true without examination or proof”. Section 4 of the Evidence Act inter alia defines the words ‘may presume’ and ‘shall presume’ as follows :-
“(a) ‘may presume’ – Whenever it is provided by this Act that the Court may presume a fact, it may either regard such fact as proved, unless and until it is disproved or may call for proof of it.
(b) ‘shall presume’ – Whenever it is directed by this Act that the Court shall presume a fact, it’ shall regard such fact as proved, unless and until it is disproved.”
In the former case the Court has an option to raise the presumption or not, but in the latter case, the Court must necessarily raise the presumption. If in a case the Court has an option to raise the presumption and raises the presumption, the distinction between the two categories of presumptions ceases and the fact is presumed, unless and until it is disproved.
Section 118 of the Act inter alia directs that it shall be presumed, until the contrary is proved, that every negotiable instrument was made or drawn for consideration. Section 139 of the Act stipulates that unless the contrary is proved, it shall be presumed, that the holder of the cheque received the cheque, for the discharge of, whole or part of any debt or liability. Applying the definition of the word ‘proved’ in Section 3 of the Evidence Act to the provisions of Sections 118 and 139 of the Act, it becomes evident that in a trial under Section 138 of the Act a presumption will have to be made that every negotiable instrument was made or drawn for consideration and that it was executed for discharge of debt or liability once the execution of negotiable instrument is either proved or admitted. As soon as the complainant discharges the burden to prove that the instrument, say a note, was executed by the accused, the rules of presumptions under Sections 118 and 139 of the Act help him shift the burden on the accused. The presumptions will live, exist and survive and shall end only when the contrary is proved by the accused, that is, the cheque was not issued for consideration and in discharge of any debt or liability. A presumption is not in itself evidence, but only makes a prima facie case for a party for whose benefit it exists.
The use of the phrase “until the contrary is proved” in Section 118 of the Act and use of the words “unless the contrary is proved” in Section 139 of the Act read with definitions of “may presume” and “shall presume” as given in Section 4 of the Evidence Act, makes it at once clear that presumptions to be raised under both the provisions are rebuttable. When a presumption is rebuttable, it only points out that the party on whom lies the duty of going forward with evidence, on the fact presumed and when that party has produced evidence fairly and reasonably tending to show that the real fact is not as presumed, the purpose of the presumption is over. The accused in a trial under Section 138 of the Act has two options. He can either show that consideration and debt did not exist or that under the particular circumstances of the case the non-existence of consideration and debt is so probable that a prudent man ought to suppose that no consideration and debt existed. To rebut the statutory presumptions an accused is not expected to prove his defence beyond reasonable doubt as is expected of the complainant in a criminal trial. The accused may adduce direct evidence to prove that the note in question was not supported by consideration and that there was no debt or liability to be discharged by him. However, the court need not insist in every case that the accused should disprove the non-existence of consideration and debt by leading direct evidence because the existence of negative evidence is neither possible nor contemplated. At the same time, it is clear that bare denial of the passing of the consideration and existence of debt, apparently would not serve the purpose of the accused. Something which is probable has to be brought on record for getting the burden of proof shifted to the complainant. To disprove the presumptions, the accused should bring on record such facts and circumstances, upon consideration of which, the court may either believe that the consideration and debt did not exist or their non-existence was so probable that a prudent man would under the circumstances of the case, act upon the plea that they did not exist. Apart from adducing direct evidence to prove that the note in question was not supported by consideration or that he had not incurred any debt or liability, the accused may also rely upon circumstantial evidence and if the circumstances so relied upon are compelling, the burden may likewise shift again on to the complainant. The accused may also rely upon presumptions of fact, for instance, those mentioned in Section 114 of the Evidence Act to rebut the presumptions arising under Sections 118 and 139 of the Act. The accused has also an option to prove the non-existence of consideration and debt or liability either by letting in evidence or in some clear and exceptional cases, from the case set out by the complainant, that is, the averments in the complaint, the case set out in the statutory notice and evidence adduced by the complainant during the trial. Once such rebuttal evidence is adduced and accepted by the court, having regard to all the circumstances of the case and the preponderance of probabilities, the evidential burden shifts back to the complainant and, thereafter, the presumptions under Sections 118 and 139 of the Act will not again come to the complainant’s rescue.