Use freedom of mind, don’t convict on moral grounds, SC to lower courts

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The Supreme Court on Monday said the district judiciary is expected to be the foundational court, and therefore, should have the freedom of mind to decide a case on its own merits, rather “rendering conviction on a moral platform”.

A bench of Justices Sanjay Kishan Kaul and M.M. Sundresh said at times, courts do have their constraints and different decisions are being made by different courts, namely, trial courts, on the one hand and the appellate courts, on the other. However, it added that if such decisions are made due to institutional constraints, they do not augur well.

The top court said: “The district judiciary is expected to be the foundational court, and therefore, should have the freedom of mind to decide a case on its own merit or else it might become a stereotyped one rendering conviction on a moral platform. Indictment and condemnation over a decision rendered, on considering all the materials placed before it, should be avoided.”

The bench said every case has its own journey towards the truth and it is the court’s role to undertake this and the truth has to be found on the basis of evidence available before it. “There is no room for subjectivity nor the nature of offence affects its performance. We have a hierarchy of courts in dealing with cases,” it added.

Justice Sundresh, who authored the judgment on behalf of the bench, said an appellate court shall not expect the trial court to act in a particular way depending upon the sensitivity of the case. “Rather it should be appreciated if a trial court decides a case on its own merit despite its sensitivity,” he noted, adding that the appellate court is expected to maintain a degree of caution before making any remark.

The top court made these observations while setting aside an order of the Karnataka High Court which reversed a trial court order acquitting two men accused of murdering a police officer in 2001. The accused were sentenced to life imprisonment. The accused filed the appeals in the top court challenging this order.

The top court said: “Certainly, the court of first instance has its own advantages in delivering its verdict, which is to see the witnesses in person while they depose. The appellate court is expected to involve itself in a deeper, studied scrutiny of not only the evidence before it, but is duty bound to satisfy itself whether the decision of the trial court is both possible and plausible view.”

The top court noted when two views are possible, the one taken by the trial court in a case of acquittal is to be followed on the touchstone of liberty along with the advantage of having seen the witnesses. “Article 21 of the Constitution, also aids the accused after acquittal in a certain way, though not absolute,” it added.

The Karnataka government had filed an appeal in the high court, which reversed the acquittal order and noted that the trial court had “no idea of the concept of dying declaration and the principle governing it”.

The top court noted that the high court should have refrained from making strong comments on the judgment made by the trial court. “Thus, the appeals are accordingly allowed. Consequently, the orders of conviction passed by the high court stand set aside,” said the bench.

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