1. Introduction

Personal liberty is the most cherished value of human life which thrives on the anvil of Articles 14 and 21 of the Constitution of India (“the Constitution”). Once a person is named an accused, he faces the spectre of deprivation of his personal liberty and criminal trial. This threat is balanced by Constitutional safeguards which mandate adherence to the rule of law by the investigating agencies as well as the Court. Thus, any procedure which seeks to impinge on personal liberty must also be fair and reasonable. The right to life and personal liberty enshrined under article 21 of the Constitution, expanded in scope post Maneka Gandhi[1], yields the right to a fair trial and fair investigation. Fairness demands disclosure of anything relevant that may be of benefit to an accused. Further, the all-pervading principles of natural justice envisage the right to a fair hearing, which entails the right to a full defence. The right to a fair defence stems from full disclosure. Therefore, the right of an accused to disclosure emanates from this Constitutional philosophy embellished by the principles of natural justice and is codified under the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973 (“Code”). 

Under English jurisprudence, the duty of disclosure is delineated in the Criminal Procedure and Investigations Act, 1996, which provides that the prosecutor must disclose to the accused any prosecution material which has not previously been disclosed to the accused and which might reasonably be considered capable of undermining the case for the prosecution against the accused or of assisting the case for the accused, except if such disclosure undermines public interest.[2] Fairness ordinarily requires that any material held by the prosecution which weakens its case or strengthens that of the defendant, if not relied on as part of its formal case against the defendant, should be disclosed to the defence.[3] The duty of disclosure under common law contemplates disclosure of anything which might assist the defence[4], even if such material was not to be used as evidence[5]. Under Indian criminal jurisprudence, which has borrowed liberally from common law, the duty of disclosure is embodied in sections 170(2), 173, 207 and 208 of the Code, which entail the forwarding of material to the Court and supply of copies thereof to the accused, subject to statutory exceptions.

II. Challenges in Enforcement

The right to disclosure is a salient feature of criminal justice, but its provenance and significance appear to be lost on the Indian criminal justice system. The woes of investigative bias and prosecutorial misconduct threaten to render this right otiose. That is not to say that the right of an accused to disclosure is indefeasible, as certain exceptions are cast in the Code itself, chief among them being public interest immunity under section 173(6). However, it is the mischief of the concept of ‘relied upon’ emerging from section 173(5) of the Code, which is wreaking havoc on the right to disclosure and is the central focus of this article. The rampant misuse of the words “on which the prosecution proposes to rely’ appearing in section 173(5) of the Code, to suppress material favourable to the accused or unfavourable to the prosecution in the garb of ‘un-relied documents’ has clogged criminal courts with avoidable litigation at the very nascent stage of supply of copies of documents under section 207 of the Code. The erosion of the right of an accused to disclosure through such subterfuge is exacerbated by the limited and restrictive validation of this right by criminal Courts. The dominant issues highlighted in the article, which stifle the right to disclosure are; tainted investigation, unscrupulous withholding of material beneficial to the accused by the prosecution, narrow interpretation by Courts of section 207 of the Code, and denial of the right to an accused to bring material on record in the pre-charge stage. 

A. Tainted Investigation

Fair investigation is concomitant to the preservation of the right to fair disclosure and fair trial. It envisages collection of all material, irrespective of its inculpatory or exculpatory nature. However, investigation is often vitiated by the tendencies of overzealous investigating officers who detract from the ultimate objective of unearthing truth, with the aim of establishing guilt. Such proclivities result in collecting only incriminating material during investigation or ignoring the material favourable to the accused. This leads to suppression of material and scuttles the right of the accused to disclosure at the very inception. A tainted investigation leads to miscarriage of justice. Fortunately, the Courts are not bereft of power to supervise investigation and ensure that the right of an accused to fair disclosure remains protected. The Magistrate is conferred with wide amplitude of powers under section 156(3) of the Code to monitor investigation, and inheres all such powers which are incidental or implied to ensure proper investigation. This power can be exercised suo moto by the Magistrate at all stages of a criminal proceeding prior to the commencement of trial, so that an innocent person is not wrongly arraigned or a prima facie guilty person is not left out.[6]

B. Suppression of Material

Indian courts commonly witness that the prosecution is partisan while conducting the trial and is invariably driven by the lust for concluding in conviction. Such predisposition impels the prosecution to take advantage by selectively picking up words from the Code and excluding material favouring the accused or negating the prosecution case, with the aid of the concept of ‘relied upon’ within section 173(5) of the Code. However, the power of the prosecution to withhold material is not unbridled as the Constitutional mandate and statutory rights given to an accused place an implied obligation on the prosecution to make fair disclosure.[7]  If the prosecution withholds vital evidence from the Court, it is liable to adverse inference flowing from section 114 of the Indian Evidence Act, 1872 (“Evidence Act). The prosecutor is expected to be guided by the Bar Council of India Rules which prescribe that an advocate appearing for the prosecution of a criminal trial shall so conduct the prosecution that it does not lead to conviction of the innocent. The suppression of material capable of establishment of the innocence of the accused shall be scrupulously avoided. [8] 

C. Scope of S. 207

The scope of disclosure under section 207 has been the subject of fierce challenge in Indian Courts on account of the prosecution selectively supplying documents under the garb of ‘relied upon’ documents, to the prejudice of the defence of an accused. The earlier judicial trend had been to limit the supply of documents under section 207 of the Code to only those documents which were proposed to be relied upon by the prosecution. This view acquiesced the exclusion of documents which were seized during investigation, but not filed before the Court along with the charge sheet, rendering the right to disclosure a farce. This restrictive sweep fails to reconcile with the objective of a fair trial viz. discovery of truth. The scheme of the code discloses that Courts have been vested with extensive powers inter alia under sections 91, 156(3) and 311 to elicit the truth. Towards the same end, Courts are also empowered under Section 165 of the Evidence Act. Thus, the principle of harmonious construction warrants a more purposive interpretation of section 207 of the code. The Hon’ble Supreme Court expounded on the scope of Section 207 of the Code in the case of Manu Sharma[9] and held that documents submitted to the Magistrate under section 173(5) would deem to include the documents which have to be sent to the magistrate during the course of investigation under section 170(2). A document which has been obtained bona fide and has a bearing on the case of the prosecution should be disclosed to the accused and furnished to him to enable him to prepare a fair defence, particularly when non production or disclosure would affect administration of justice or prejudice the defence of the accused. It is not for the prosecution or the court to comprehend the prejudice that is likely to be caused to the accused. The perception of prejudice is for the accused to develop on reasonable basis.[10] Manu Sharma’s [supra] case has been relied upon in Sasikala [11] wherein it was held that the Court must concede a right to the accused to have access to the documents which were forwarded to the Court but not exhibited by the prosecution as they favoured the accused. These judgments seem more in consonance with the true spirit of fair disclosure and fair trial. However, despite such clear statements of law, courts are grappling with the judicial propensity of deviating from this expansive interpretation and regressing to the concept of relied upon. The same is evident from a recent pronouncement of the Delhi High Court where the ratios laid down in Manu Sharma & Sasikala [supra] were not followed by erroneously distinguishing from those cases.[12] Such “per incuriam” aberrations by High Court not only undermine the supremacy of the Apex Court, but also adversely impact the functioning of the district courts over which they exercise supervisory jurisdiction. Hopefully in future Judges shall be more circumspect and strictly follow the law declared by the Apex Court.  

D. Pre-Charge Embargo

Another obstacle encountered in the enforcement of the right to disclosure is the earlier judicial approach to stave off production or consideration of any additional documents not filed alongwith the charge sheet at the pre-charge stage, as the right to file such material was available to the accused only upon the commencement of trial after framing of charge.[13] At the pre-charge stage, Court could not direct the prosecution to furnish copies of other documents[14] It was for the accused to do so during trial or at the time of entering his defence. However, the evolution of law has seen that at the stage of framing charge, Courts can rely upon the material which has been withheld by the prosecutor, even if such material is not part of the charge sheet, but is of such sterling quality demolishing the case of the prosecution.[15] Courts are not handicapped to consider relevant material at the stage of framing charge, which is not relied upon by the prosecution. It is no argument that the accused can ask for the documents withheld at the time of entering his defence.[16] The framing of charge is a serious matter in a criminal trial as it ordains an accused to face a long and arduous trial affecting his liberty. Therefore, the Court must have all relevant material before the stage of framing charge to ascertain if grave suspicion is made out or not. Full disclosure at the stage of section 207 of the code, which immediately precedes discharging or charging an accused, enables an accused to seek a discharge, if the documents, including those not relied upon by the prosecution, create an equally possible view in favour of the accused.[17] On the other hand, delaying the reception of documents postpones the vindication of the accused in an unworthy trial and causes injustice by subjecting him to the trauma of trial. There is no gainsaying that justice delayed is justice denied, therefore, such an approach ought not to receive judicial consent. A timely discharge also travels a long way in saving precious time of the judiciary, which is already overburdened by the burgeoning pendency of cases. Thus, delayed or piecemeal disclosure not only prejudices the defence of the accused, but also protracts the trial and occasions travesty of justice.

III. Duties of the stakeholders in criminal justice system

The foregoing analysis reveals that participation of the investigating agency, the prosecution and the Court is inextricably linked to the enforcement of the right to disclosure. The duties cast on these three stakeholders in the criminal justice system, are critical to the protection of this right. It is incumbent upon the investigating agencies to investigate cases fairly and to place on record all the material irrespective of its implication on the case of prosecution case. Investigation must be carried out with equal alacrity and fairness irrespective of status of accused or complainant.[18] An onerous duty is cast on the prosecution as an independent statutory officer, to conduct the trial with the objective of determination of truth and to ensure that material favourable to the defence is supplied to the accused. Ultimately, it is the overarching duty of the Court to ensure a fair trial towards the administration of justice for all parties. The principles of fair trial require the Court to strike a delicate balance between competing interests in a system of adversarial advocacy. Therefore, the court ought to exercise its power under section 156(3) of the Code to monitor investigation and ensure that all material, including that which enures to the benefit of the accused, is brought on record. Even at the stage of supply of copies of police report and documents under section 207 of the Code, it is the duty of the Court to give effect to the law laid down by the Hon’ble Supreme Court in Manu Sharma (supra) and Sasikala (supra), and ensure that all such material is supplied to the accused irrespective of whether it is “relied upon” by the prosecution or not.

IV. Alternate Remedy

The conundrum of supply of copies under section 207 of the code abounds criminal trials. Fairness is an evolving concept. There is no doubt that disclosure of all material which goes to establish the innocence of an accused is the sine qua non of a fair trial.[19] Effort is evidently underway to expand the concept in alignment with English jurisprudence. In the meanwhile, does the right of an accused to disclosure have another limb to stand on? Section 91 of the Code comes to the rescue of an accused, which confers wide discretionary powers on the Court, independent of section 173 of the Code, to summon the production of things or documents, relevant for the just adjudication of the case. In case the Court is of the opinion that the prosecution has withheld vital, relevant and admissible evidence from the Court, it can legitimately use its power under section 91 of the Code to discover the truth and to do complete justice to the accused.[20] 

V. Conclusion

A society’s progress and advancement are judged on many parameters, an important one among them being the manner in which it administers criminal justice. Conversely, the ironic sacrilege of the core virtues of criminal jurisprudence in the temples of justice evinces social decadence. The Indian legislature of the twenty first century has given birth to several draconian statutes which place iron shackles on personal liberty, evoking widespread fear of police abuses and malicious prosecution. These statutes not only entail presumptions which reverse the burden of proof, but also include impediments to the grant of bail. Thus, a very heavy burden to dislodge the prosecution case is imposed on the accused, rendering the right to disclosure of paramount importance. It is the duty of the Court to keep vigil over this Constitutional and statutory right conferred on an accused by repudiating any procedure which prejudices his defence. Notable advancement has been made by the Apex Court in interpreting section 207 of the Code in conformity with the Constitutional mandate, including the right to disclosure. Strict adherence to the afore-noted principles will go a long way in ensuring real and substantial justice. Any departure will not only lead to judicial anarchy, but also further diminish the already dwindling faith of the public in the justice delivery system.

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Advocate Manu Sharma has been practising at the bar for over sixteen years. He specialises in Criminal Defence. Some of the high profile cases he has represented are – the 2G scam case for former Union minister A Raja; the Religare/Fortis case for Malvinder Singh; Peter Mukerjee in the P Chidambaram/ INX Media case; Devas Multimedia in ISRO corruption act case; Om Prakash Chautala in PMLA case; Aditya Talwar in the aviation scam case; Dilip Ray, former Coal Minister in one of the coal scam cases; Suhaib Illyasi case.

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[1] Maneka Gandhi and Another v. Union of India, (1978) 1 SCC 248

[2] S. 3 of the Criminal Procedure and Investigations Act, 1996

[3] R v. H and R v. C, 2004 (1) ALL ER 1269

[4] R v. Ward (Judith), (1993) 1 WLR 619 : (1993) 2 ALL ER 577 (CA)

[5] R v. Preston, (1994) 2 AC 130 : (1993) 3 WLR  891 : (1993) 4 ALL ER 638 (HL), R v. Stinchcome, (1991), 68 C.C.C. (3d) 1 (S.C.C.)

[6] Vinubhai Haribhai Malaviya and Others v. State of Gujarat and Another, 2019 SCC Online SC 1346

[7] Sidhartha Vashishth alias Manu Sharma v. State (NCT of Delhi), (2010) 6 SCC 1

[8] R. 16, part II, Ch. VI of the Bar Council of India Rules

[9] Manu Sharma, (2010) 6 SCC 1

[10] V.K. Sasikala v. State, (2012) 9 SCC 771 : AIR 2013 SC 613

[11] Sasikala, (2012) 9 SCC 771 : AIR 2013 SC 613

[12] Sarla Gupta and Another v. Directorate of Enforcement, (2019) 262 DLT 661

[13] State of Orissa v. Debendra Nath Padhi¸(2005) 1 SCC 568

[14] Dharambir v. Central Bureau of Investigation, ILR (2008) 2 Del 842 : (2008) 148 DLT 289

[15] Nitya Dharmananda alias K. Lenin and Another v. Gopal Sheelum Reddy,  (2018) 2 SCC 93

[16] Neelesh Jain v. State of Rajasthan, 2006 Cri LJ 2151

[17]  Dilwar Balu Kurane v. State of Maharashtra, (2002) 2 SCC 135, Yogesh alias Sachin Jagdish Joshi v. State of Maharashtra, (2008) 10 SCC 394

[18] Karan Singh v. State of Haryana, (2013) 12 SCC 529

[19] Kanwar Jagat Singh v. Directorate of Enforcement & Anr, (2007) 142 DLT 49

[20] Neelesh, 2006 Cri LJ 2151

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