The Supreme Court on Friday noted the “casual” approach adopted by trial courts in recording statements of accused in cases related to dowry deaths, and passed certain new directions necessary to give full meaning to rights of accused and prosecution during trial.
What is Dowry Death – Section 304B IPC?
Section 304B of the Indian Penal Code provision presumes that the death of any woman within seven years of marriage caused by any burns or bodily injury or otherwise than normal circumstances shall be presumed to be a case of dowry death provided there is evidence that she was subjected to cruelty by husband and his family members “soon before” her death.
Dowry death is punishable under Section 304B of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) which carries a sentence that can range from seven years to life term.
A bench of Chief Justice of India (CJI) N V Ramana, Justices Surya Kant and Anirudhha Bose noted,
It is a matter of grave concern that often trial courts record the statement of an accused under Section 313 of the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC) in a very casual and cursory manner.
The bench further observed,
The prosecution must establish existence of “proximate and live link” between the dowry death and cruelty or harassment for dowry demand by the husband or his relatives.
The court also noted that Section 304B IPC does not take a pigeonhole approach in categorising death as homicidal or suicidal or accidental. It said,
22…The reason for such non categorisation is due to the fact that death occurring “otherwise than under normal circumstances” can, in cases, be homicidal or suicidal or accidental. However, the Section 304B, IPC endeavours to also 16 address those situations wherein murders or suicide are masqueraded as accidents.
23. Therefore, if all the other ingredients of Section 304B IPC are fulfilled, any death whether caused by burns or by bodily injury or occurring otherwise than under normal circumstances shall, as per the legislative mandate, be called a “dowry death” and the woman’s husband or his relative “shall be deemed to have caused her death” unless proved otherwise. The section clearly specifies what constitutes the offence of dowry death and also identifies the single offender or multiple offenders who has or have caused the dowry death.
As reported by Livelaw, the bench issued the following new guidelines in cases of dowry deaths:
i. Section 304B, IPC must be interpreted keeping in mind the legislative intent to curb the social evil of bride burning and dowry demand
ii. The prosecution must at first establish the existence of the necessary ingredients for constituting an offence under Section 304B, IPC. Once these ingredients are satisfied, the rebuttable presumption of causality, provided under Section 113B, Evidence Act operates against the accused
iii. The phrase “soon before” as appearing in Section 304B, IPC cannot be construed to mean ‘immediately before’. The prosecution must establish existence of “proximate and live link” between the dowry death and cruelty or harassment for dowry demand by the husband or his relatives
iv. Section 304B, IPC does not take a pigeonhole approach in categorising death as homicidal or suicidal or accidental. The reason for such non categorisation is due to the fact that death occurring “otherwise than under normal circumstances” can, in cases, be homicidal or suicidal or accidental
v. Due to the precarious nature of Section 304B, IPC read with 113B, Evidence Act, Judges, prosecution and defence should be careful during conduction of trial
vi. It is a matter of grave concern that, often, Trial Courts record the statement under Section 313, CrPC in a very casual and cursory manner, without specifically questioning the accused as to his defense. It ought to be noted that the examination of an accused under Section 313, CrPC cannot be treated as a mere procedural formality, as it based on the fundamental principle of fairness. This aforesaid provision incorporates the valuable principle of natural justice “audi alteram partem” as it enables the accused to offer an explanation for the incriminatory material appearing against him. Therefore, it imposes an obligation on the court to question the accused fairly, with care and caution
vii. The Court must put incriminating circumstances before the accused and seek his response. A duty is also cast on the counsel of the accused to prepare his defense since the inception of the Trial with due caution, keeping in consideration the peculiarities of Section 304B, IPC read with Section 113B, Evidence Act
viii. Section 232, CrPC provides that, “If, after taking the evidence for the prosecution, examining the accused and hearing the prosecution and the defence on the point, the Judge considers that there is no evidence that the accused committed the offence, the Judge shall record an order of acquittal”. Such discretion must be utilised by the Trial Courts as an obligation of best efforts
ix. Once the Trial Court decides that the accused is not eligible to be acquitted as per the provisions of Section 232, CrPC, it must move on and fix hearings specifically for ‘defence evidence’, calling upon the accused to present his defense as per the procedure provided under Section 233, CrPC, which is also an invaluable right provided to the accused
x. In the same breath, Trial Courts need to balance other important considerations such as the right to a speedy trial. In this regard, we may caution that the above provisions should not be allowed to be misused as delay tactics
xi. Apart from the above, the presiding Judge should follow the guidelines laid down by this Court while sentencing and imposing appropriate punishment
xii. Undoubtedly, as discussed above, the menace of dowry death is increasing day by day. However, it is also observed that sometimes family members of the husband are roped in, even though they have no active role in commission of the offence and are residing at distant places. In these cases, the Court need to be cautious in its approach