Applicability of ‘Mohan Lal’ verdict ordering acquittal in case of informant and IO being the same person, revisited

Supreme Court:  The 3-judge bench of Ranjan Gogoi, CJ and Navin Sinha and KM Joseph, JJ has clarified that  all pending criminal prosecutions, trials and appeals prior to the law laid down in Mohan Lal vs. State of Punjab, (2018) SCC Online SC 974 shall continue to be governed by the individual facts of the case, as the said judgment cannot be allowed to become a spring board by an accused   for   being   catapulted   to   acquittal,   irrespective   of   all   other considerations pursuant to an investigation and prosecution when the law in that regard was nebulous.

In the said judgment, the 3-judge bench of Ranjan Gogoi, R. Banumathi and Navin Sinha, JJ was dealing with the question as to whether in a criminal prosecution, it will be in consonance with the principles of justice, fair play and a fair investigation, if the informant and the investigating officer were to be the same person. It had held that:

“To leave the matter for being determined on the individual facts of a case, may not only lead to a possible abuse of powers, but more importantly will leave the police, the accused, the lawyer and the courts in a state of uncertainty and confusion which has to be avoided. It is therefore held that a fair investigation, which is but the very foundation of fair trial, necessarily postulates that the informant and the investigator must not be the same person. Justice must not only be done, but must appear to be done also. Any possibility of bias or a predetermined conclusion has to be excluded. This requirement is all the more imperative in laws carrying a reverse burden of proof.”

When the present matter came before the Court, it noticed the facts of the present case were different from that in the Mohan Lal case. In the present case, it was argued that the conviction must vitiate as the informant is also the investigating officer. Strong reliance was placed on the Mohan Lal verdict. The Court, however, noticed that the facts in Mohan Lal case were indeed extremely telling in so far as the defaults on part of the prosecution was concerned. In the said case, the paramount consideration being to interpret the law so that it operates fairly, the facts of that case did not show any need to visualise what all exceptions must be carved out and provided for.

In relation to the case at hand, the Court said that the facts in the present case were equally telling with regard to the accused. It added:

“There is a history of previous convictions of the appellant also. We cannot be oblivious of the fact that while the law stood nebulous, charge sheets have been submitted, trials in progress or concluded, and appeals pending all of which will necessarily be impacted.”

Stating that criminal jurisprudence mandates balancing the rights of the accused and the prosecution, the bench said:

“Individual rights of the accused are undoubtedly important. But equally important is the societal interest for bringing the offender to book and for the system to send the right message to all in the society — be it the law­abiding citizen or the potential offender. ‘Human rights’ are not only of the accused but, extent apart, also of the victim, the symbolic member of the society as the potential victim and the society as a whole.”

[Varinder Kumar v. State of Himachal Pradesh, 2019 SCC OnLine SC 170, decided on 11.02.2019]

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