This article presents an in-depth examination of the critical role played by fair disclosure of documents in the criminal justice system. It explores the provisions of Sections 207 and 208 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973 (CrPC), which are fundamental to ensuring accused individuals receive copies of relevant documents, irrespective of their use by the prosecution. By analyzing landmark judgments of the Supreme Court of India, this study emphasizes the significance of fair disclosure in upholding the principles of natural justice and promoting procedural fairness. Additionally, recent developments, including the Supreme Court's Draft Criminal Rules on Practice and ongoing debates, are discussed, shedding light on the progressive strides towards a just and transparent criminal justice system. The article concludes with the notion that continued efforts to ensure fair disclosure will maintain the integrity of justice and protect the rights of the accused, ultimately fostering a more equitable legal landscape.
The cornerstone of any criminal justice system is the guarantee of a fair and transparent trial to the accused. In pursuit of this fundamental principle, Sections 207 and 208 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973 ('CrPC') play a pivotal role in ensuring that accused persons in any criminal trial are provided with copies of police reports and other relevant documents, whether relied upon by the prosecution or not. The significance of the disclosure of documents in criminal proceedings has been underscored by the Supreme Court of India in several landmark cases, linking it inextricably to the concept of natural justice.
To grasp the predicament of an accused in a criminal trial, Fali S. Nariman draws the perfect analogy captured within the architecture of the Bombay High Court building:
"The architect and designer of the Bombay High Court building not only had an acute sense of perception, but a sense of humour as well. One has to be an astute observer to discover this. At the base of the tower depicting justice, is carved the face and front paws of a monkey! The monkey looks in the direction of the high-ceilinged central criminal courtroom located on the second floor of the high court building. The monkey wears an expression of wide-eyed horror, as if to convey feelings about the terrible things being perpetrated in the courtroom upstairs in the name of justice! Below the tower depicting the figure of Mercy is carved a ravenous wolf ready to tear up the unfortunate accused who is being tried in the central criminal court. What imagination!" 1
Section 207 of CrPC: A Key to Fair Disclosure
Section 207 of the CrPC, titled 'supply to the accused a copy of police report and other documents,' is a critical provision that underscores the importance of fair disclosure in criminal proceedings. In the course of an investigation, the police and other investigating agencies come across numerous documents, some of which might support the prosecution's case, while others may not align with their narrative. This distinction results in the bifurcation of documents into 'relied upon' and 'un-relied upon' categories.
A Timeline of Precedents – Importance of Disclosure and its Impact on Fair Trial
In the matter of Manu Sharma v. NCT of Delhi 2 in April 2010, the Supreme Court made a significant pronouncement on the concept of fair disclosure. It emphasized that fair disclosure includes within its ambit the furnishing of relied upon documents to the accused, regardless of whether these documents have been formally filed in court. The Court noted a contrast between Section 173 of CrPC, which specifically uses the expression 'documents on which the prosecution relies', and Section 207 of CrPC, which lacks such precise language. Consequently, the Court opined that Section 207 of CrPC must be interpreted liberally and expansively to achieve its intended purpose.
Subsequently, the landmark judgment in V. K. Sasikala v. State 3 further fortified the rights of the accused in relation to access to documents. In this case, the Supreme Court upheld the accused's right to access certain papers submitted to the court by the investigating agency but not exhibited by the prosecution because such papers favoured the accused. The Court recognized that the accused may encounter difficulties in explaining certain aspects of the prosecution's evidence based on specific documents and may seek to establish that potentially incriminating documents could be better understood in conjunction with other materials. In such circumstances, the Court stressed the importance of affording the accused an opportunity to satisfy themselves in this regard.
Furthermore, the Court clarified that the determination of whether prejudice is being caused to the accused should not rest solely with the prosecution or the court. If the accused reasonably feels burdened by such concerns, it becomes the duty of the court and the prosecution to address and dispel those apprehensions at the earliest. The Court underscored that ensuring a fair trial is of paramount importance, as enshrined in Article 21 of the Constitution, which guarantees this right to every accused.
The Court highlighted that the issue of fair disclosure transcends mere compliance or non-compliance with Section 207 of CrPC. It delves into the broader doctrine of a free and fair trial, meticulously crafted by the courts through a purposive interpretation of Article 21 of the Constitution. This principled approach seeks to protect the rights of the accused and preserve the sanctity of justice in the criminal justice system.
Supreme Court's Draft Criminal Rules on Practice: A Progressive Step
In April 2021, the Supreme Court, in response to observed deficiencies in criminal trials and practices adopted by trial courts, took suo moto cognizance of this issue in Criminal Trials Guidelines Regarding Inadequacies & Deficiencies, InRe v. State of Andhra Pradesh & Ors 4. The Apex Court aimed to rectify these concerns and promote fair practices by introducing the Draft Criminal Rules on Practice, which were mandated for implementation by all the High Courts in the country with immediate effect. As part of this progressive initiative, the Court issued various guidelines to streamline criminal proceedings and protect the rights of the accused, including the disclosure of un-relied upon documents.
In this context, the Supreme Court held that while complying with the obligation to furnish the list of documents under Section 207 or 208 of CrPC, the Magistrate must also ensure the provision of a list of un-relied upon documents. This enables the accused to seek appropriate orders for their production during the trial, should they consider such material necessary for a fair and just trial. The Court further emphasized that at the commencement of the trial, the Magistrate must furnish a comprehensive list of all documents, materials, and evidence seized during the investigation or possessed by the prosecution, regardless of whether the prosecution intends to rely on them.
It is noteworthy that such provision of a list of all documents, whether relied upon or not, informs the accused of all materials in the possession of the investigating agency, enabling them to approach the court for the supply of relevant documents to support their defence during the trial.
Moving to November 2022, in P. Ponnusamy v. State of Tamil Nadu 5, the Full Bench of the Supreme Court, with a 2:1 majority, revisited the Draft Criminal Rules on Practice of 2021. The Apex Court clarified that the failure of some High Courts or state governments/union territories in implementing the Draft Rules cannot prejudice the rights of any accused that have already been recognized. The Court considered the possibility that the Investigating Officer ('IO') might overlook or deliberately disregard seized documents, material, or evidence that favour the accused, leading to their non-submission to the Magistrate. In such situations, the Court ruled that the absence of such material on the court record should not deprive the accused of their right to access potentially exculpatory material.
Access to Actual Documents: An Ongoing Debate
Despite the Supreme Court's Draft Rules mandating the supply of a 'list' of un-relied upon documents to the accused, a pertinent question remained unanswered. Does the accused have the right to access the actual documents if requested, or is the list alone sufficient for compliance?
In the case of Manoj & Ors. v. State of Madhya Pradesh 6, the Supreme Court highlighted the importance of procedural fairness in all criminal trials. The Court mandated that the prosecution must provide a list of all statements, documents, material objects, and exhibits that are not relied upon by the IO. This disclosure obligation is applicable during the framing of charges against the accused.
In the recent judgment of Central Bureau of Investigation ('CBI') v. M/s INX Media (P) Ltd. & Ors. 7, which attained finality on July 18th, 2023, the Delhi High Court addressed this issue. It ruled that during the stage of charge framing, the accused has the right to bring any un-relied upon document discovered during the investigation to the Court's attention, even if withheld by the investigating agency. In this case, the Delhi High Court permitted the accused to inspect the documents kept in the CBI malkhana (the room where case properties are stored). In doing so, the High Court sought to strike a balance between ensuring a fair trial and preserving the sanctity of further investigation, if necessary.
The issue is currently being adjudicated upon by the Delhi High Court in R. P. Goyal v. Directorate of Enforcement 8, wherein the order to supply a mere list of un-relied upon documents to the accused has been challenged. This issue has arisen against the backdrop that, akin to the CBI, the ED lacks a malkhana, which impedes the allowance of document inspection. Consequently, the supply of un-relied documents is vital for the accused to utilize such material in their defence during the trial. Observing the outcome of this ongoing matter will shed light on the future direction of this issue.
In May 2023, a similar issue came before the High Court of Punjab and Haryana in Kalyani Singh v. CBI 9, where the Court unequivocally held that the prosecution must include a list of un-relied documents along with the charge sheet, and upon the accused's request for specific documents from that list, the Magistrate is obligated to provide copies of those documents without undue delay.
Conclusion: Striding Towards a Just & Transparent Criminal Justice System
Fair disclosure of documents is a fundamental aspect of a just criminal justice system, and Sections 207 and 208 of the CrPC play a crucial role in ensuring accused individuals receive copies of relevant documents, irrespective of their use by the prosecution. Landmark judgments by the Supreme Court have emphasized the importance of providing relied upon documents to the accused, promoting procedural fairness.
The recent developments in the law regarding the supply of un-relied documents in criminal proceedings demonstrate a progressive and commendable approach by the judiciary. The Supreme Court's decision to provide a list of un-relied upon documents to the accused amplifies their defence capabilities and enhances the prospects of a fair trial. However, the unresolved debate on whether the accused should access actual documents continues to spark discussion.
As the legal landscape evolves, the quest for fair disclosure remains crucial for a transparent and equitable criminal justice system. Upholding the principles of natural justice and ensuring access to all relevant documents will maintain the integrity of justice and safeguard the rights of the accused. The conclusive verdict in R. P. Goyal (supra) and subsequent rulings will significantly shape the contours of fair disclosure in criminal proceedings. The Indian legal system can continue to uphold the sanctity of justice and protect the rights of the accused, fostering a more transparent and just criminal justice system.
1. Fali S. Nariman, Chapter 2: More Watching than Pleading, in Before Memory Fades: An Autobiography (2010)
2. Manu Sharma v. NCT of Delhi (2010) 6 SCC 1
3. V. K. Sasikala v. State (2012) 9 SCC 771
4. In Re: To Issue Certain Guidelines regarding Inadequacies and Deficiencies in Criminal Trials v. State of Andhra Pradesh & Ors. (2021) 10 SCC 598
5. P. Ponnusamy v. State of Tamil Nadu 2022 SCC OnLine SC 1543
6. Manoj & Ors. v. State of Madhya Pradesh (2023) 2 SCC 353
7. Central Bureau of Investigation v. INX Media(P) Ltd. & Ors. 2021 SCC OnLine Del 4932 (Operative Judgment)
8. R. P. Goyal v. Directorate of Enforcement W. P. (Crl.) No. 96 of 2022
9. Kalyani Singh v. CBI MANU/PH/0882/2023
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