When a Magistrate is presented with a charge sheet by the police, the next step would be to frame charges against the accused under Section 228 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973 (“CrPC”). Charges being framed are a prerequisite for trial to commence. If a judge, after perusing documents presented before them, decides that there aren’t sufficient grounds to initiate trial against the accused, they may be discharged under Section 227 of the CrPC. In this article, I will examine how evidence is treated when charges are framed and argue why it is crucial to consider their admissibility (or lack of thereof) when contemplating discharge.
When framing charges, the Judge is presented with the record of the case and pertinent documents, and the submissions of the accused and the prosecution. The Supreme Court, in Union of India v. Prafulla Kumar Samal and anr., laid down principles to be followed when determining whether a prima facie case has been made out against the accused: One, the judge has the power to sift through and weigh evidence to determine whether a prima facie case has been made; two, if the judge has a grave suspicion against the accused based on the materials placed before them, then they may frame charges; three, while the nature of what constitutes prima facie case is extremely subjective, if there are two equally plausible views presented before the judge, they must choose the view that favors the accused’s innocence; and four, the judge may not act as a mere ‘post office or mouthpiece of the prosecution’. They must apply their minds and consider the broad implications of the case but they may not weigh the evidence like they’re conducting a trial. The evidence must merely be perused and only glaring injustice warrants meticulous consideration.
Can a presumption of admissibility be made regarding the evidence presented in the stage of framing charges? In Dipakbhai Jagdishchandra Patel v. The State of Gujarat, the Supreme Court affirmed that the Court must apply its mind when sifting through evidence during the stage of framing of charges. It discussed in detail the admissibility of the evidence presented in the matter. The evidence was ultimately deemed inadmissible, and the accused was discharged.
Various High Courts have taken differing stands on this. For instance, the Rajasthan High Court in Kanwar Raj Singh v. State of Rajasthan held that prior to framing charges, trial courts must give bare references to admissible evidence, the absence of which are grounds for discharge. Similarly, in Dipak Kanubhai @ Kanaiyalal Darji v. State of Gujarat held that charges framed on the basis of an inadmissible confession to a police officer warrants discharge.
In contrast to this, the Supreme Court in Sajjan Kumar v. Central Bureau of Investigation held that it is not the duty of the Trial Court to evaluate the reliability, acceptability or evidentiary value of evidence presented during the stage of framing charges. There are several High Court judgements that firmly believe that the question of admissibility of evidence must solely be relegated to trial. In Vijay Chintaman Nahire v. State of Maharashtra, the Trial Court was presented with the testimony of co-accused which is inadmissible unless there’s a joint trial. The High Court affirmed that charges may be framed on the basis of any compelling evidence and the question of admissibility may be discussed in trial. Similarly, the Rajasthan High Court in Ghulam Abbas v. State of Rajasthan held that the admissibility of evidence may not be looked into during trial.
There are merits to consider admissibility of the evidence presented when framing charges. It is important to note that considering admissibility in the stage of framing charges is to deem it a relevant criterion when evidence is weighed to establish a prima facie case and not automatically reserve it to trial. Therefore, if the prosecution heavily relies on glaringly inadmissible evidence, it shall be grounds for discharge.
Let us examine the contention that reserving the question of admissibility to trial will make it fairer or more beneficial to the accused. There are three possible reasons for this: One, the summary nature of the pre-trial stage of framing charges will not allow for the question of admissibility to be decided properly; two, examining the admissibility of evidence would prolong the pre-trial stage and three, the accused may not be provided an opportunity to defend themselves. Neither of these arguments stand.
It is well-settled that the standard of test, proof and judgement that a Court applies during trial is considerably higher than that during framing of charges. A prima facie examination of admissibility to facilitate discharge will not entail or intend to replace an in-depth evaluation of admissibility that occurs during trial. Therefore, even if the truth, veracity and effect of the evidence is not to be meticulously judged, this does not preclude a judge from their duty to apply their mind and not frame charges on the basis of grossly inadmissible evidence.
The objective of Section 227, CrPC: to “avoid waste of public time over cases which did not disclose a prima facie case and to save the accused from avoidable harassment and expenditure.” When Trial Courts already weigh the evidence presented to them in order to frame charges, adding another criterion of prima-facie admissibility, that several judicial decisions reflect, is unlikely to cause considerable delays. Even if it does cause delay in the pre-trial stage, it is outweighed by the harms of subjecting an individual to an inevitably longer trial on the basis of faulty, inadmissible evidence.
While it is settled practice for the accused to be disallowed from producing material in their defense at the pre-trial stage, they are still allowed to make submissions in their defense regarding the material produced by the police. Due to this limitation imposed on the accused’s ability to defend themselves, it’s poignant for the Judge to apply their mind and evaluate the evidence presented before them with scrutiny. Allowing a case to proceed to trial on the basis of inadmissible evidence will be detrimental to the accused. Further, a judge considering admissibility of evidence at the stage of framing charges does not preclude a more detailed examination of the same evidence during trial.
Finally, this is relevant in the context of political dissidents who have been detained by the State. For instance, in 2018, Human Rights Advocate Sudha Bharadwaj was arrested by the Pune Police who claimed that she was an active member of the banned organization, CPI (Maoist). The accusation was made on the basis of certain documents that were allegedly recovered from her; documents that were typed, with unestablished authorship, and which were not created on any computer or any other devices recovered from her. They are neither primary nor secondary evidence and are patently inadmissible under the Indian Evidence Act, 1872, as was contended by her counsel in her bail application before the Bombay High Court. Considering admissibility at the stage of framing charges offers some degree of protection to individuals facing mala fide complaints or fabricated charges.
[Vaishnavi is a IV Year law student at National Law University, Jodhpur. Her areas of interest are human rights and the criminal justice system. Her email ID is [email protected].]