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“Soon before” Under S.304-B IPC does not mean Immediately Before: Supreme Court

On a criminal appeal regarding bail for dowry death, the Supreme court laid down guidelines on how to proceed with the trial in such cases and went into the legislative history of section 304-B IPC to hold that the phrase “soon before” cannot be restricted to mean immediately before; it has to be interpreted in accordance with factum of each case. This judgment was passed in the case of Satbir Singh & Another vs. State of Haryana [Cr.A.No.1735-1736/2010], by a Triple Bench consisting of Hon’ble The Chief Justice, Hon’ble Justice Surya Kant, and Hon’ble Justice Aniruddha Bose.

The present appeals arose out of the impugned judgment passed by the High Court Of Punjab and Haryana whereby appeals preferred by the appellants were dismissed and the order of conviction passed by the Trial Court was upheld. The case of the prosecution was that the deceased and appellant no.1 were married in 1994 and in the year 1995 the complainant was informed that his daughter was ailing and admitted to the hospital. By the time he along with wife and son reached the hospital, she had passed away due to burn injuries. The prosecution’s case was the deceased committed suicide just one year after marriage and soon before her death she was subjected to cruelty and harassment on account of bringing less dowry.

On trial the appellants were convicted under sections 304B, 306 of IPC and sentenced to undergo rigorous imprisonment for seven years under section 304B and 5 years rigorous imprisonment under section 306 IPC. Aggrieved by the same the appellants approached the high court, wherein the order of trial court was upheld. Aggrieved by the order, the appellants filed the present appeal by way of Special Leave in the Supreme court.

The Supreme court after hearing both the parties observed that the issues to be addressed were whether the Trial Court and high court was correct in convicting the accused under section 304B and 306 IPC. The supreme court observed that the terms “soon before” although should be interpreted strictly when such strict interpretation leads to absurdity, the court may rely on genuine import of the words. Thus the interpretation of “soon before” did not mean immediately before and should be interpreted based on facts and circumstances. What is pivotal to the above determination is the establishment of a “proximate   and   live   link”   between   the   cruelty   and   the consequential death of the victim.” The Supreme Court further observed that when the prosecution establishes such proximate link presumption   of   causation   arises   against   the   accused   under Section 113­B of the Evidence Act.

The Court held that the examination of accused under section 313 CrPC incorporates the valuable principle of natural justice­ “audi alteram partem”, as it enabled the accused to offer an explanation for the incriminatory material appearing against him. Therefore the court must question the accused fairly with care and caution. The court held that the prosecution successfully probed that the death was due to burn injuries which took place within one year of marriage and it was proved that soon before her death she was subjected to harassment and cruelty for dowry. Thus on the basis of 113B Evidence Act, the burden shifts to the accused-appellants and they did not rebut the same.

The Supreme Court also reiterated that calling upon the accused to present his defense as per the procedure provided under Section 233, CrPC, is an invaluable right provided to the accused. On the offence under section 306 IPC the Supreme Court observed that since there was insufficient evidence to prove suicide beyond reasonable doubt, the presumption under section 113A Evidence Act, cannot be taken  by the prosecution. Therefore the conviction of appellants under section 306 IPC required the court’s interference and the Court set aside the conviction and sentence under section 306 IPC.

The Supreme Court concluded by holding, “we find that the High Court and Trial Court have not committed any error in convicting the appellants under section 304B, IPC as the appellants failed to discharge the burden under section 113B, Evidence Act. However, upon appreciation of facts and circumstances we are of the opinion that the offences under section 306, IPC is not made out. We therefore set aside the conviction and sentence under section 306, IPC.”

Click here for the Judgment.

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