SC orders states to probe all acquittals

SC orders states to probe all acquittals

In what is likely to be a major shake-up for India’s languishing criminal justice system, the Supreme Court on Tuesday hit out at police departments and investigating agencies, directing all state governments to examine every acquittal in criminal cases across the country.

The court ruled that acquittal of an accused showed lapses on part of the police and prosecution and, therefore, officers responsible for it must face departmental action. The court reasoned that this would “infuse seriousness” in investigations and ensure “purposeful and decisive” probes in future.

A bench comprising Justices C K Prasad and J S Khehar gave all state governments six months to put in place a system to examine all orders of acquittal and record reasons for failing to prosecute cases successfully. In the court’s view, this measure was required to ensure that no guilty escaped punishment and, at the same time, innocent people were not implicated in false cases.

“Every acquittal should be understood as a failure of the justice delivery system, in serving the cause of justice. Likewise, every acquittal should ordinarily lead to the inference, that an innocent person was wrongfully prosecuted. It is therefore, essential that every state should put in place a procedural mechanism, which would ensure that the cause of justice is served, which would simultaneously ensure the safeguard of interest of those who are innocent,” the bench said.

The court passed the order in a case which involved the acquittal of a 19-year-old man for raping and murdering a six-year-old girl in Ahmedabad in 2003, due to lack of evidence. The 46-page judgment said there were more than 10 lapses by the police and investigators. The court said it was “crestfallen, heartbroken and sorrowful” since it could not serve justice to an innocent child.

“The perpetrators of a horrendous crime, involving extremely ruthless and savage treatment to the victim, have remained unpunished. A heartless and merciless criminal, who has committed an extremely heinous crime, has gone scot-free,” wrote justice Khehar for the bench.

The ruling, however, emphasised that it is the duty of a court to serve the cause of justice for victims, and to ensure that an innocent person is not subjected to the rigours of criminal prosecution.

“A standing committee of senior officers of the police and prosecution departments should be vested with the responsibility. All such erring officers identified as responsible for failure of a prosecution case, on account of sheer negligence or because of culpable lapses, must suffer departmental action,” the bench ordered.

Tuesday’s judgment asked state governments to incorporate content drawn from the analysis of such cases of acquittal in their training programmes for junior officers so that investigators don’t feign innocence or lack of knowledge if lapses are committed.

The court also wanted governments to prepare a concrete procedure to ensure that only persons against whom there was sufficient evidence went through the criminal prosecution. It ordered the prosecuting agency to remove all shortcomings before initiating prosecution and undertake further probe if necessary.

“It should also be ensured that the evidence gathered during investigation is truly and faithfully utilised, by confirming that all relevant witnesses and materials for proving the charges are conscientiously presented during the trial of a case,” the court said.

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