I – INTRODUCTION

The law of evidence is of significance for outcomes of both criminal and civil disputes. It is thus, necessary to ensure that legal provisions governing the same cater to disputing parties in the establishment of facts and patterns to give judges the opportunity to adjudicate on these matters.

Since this paper focuses on Accomplice Witnesses, it would be best to keep in consideration the criminal aspects of the law of evidence and proceed with the same. In the simplest of terms the word ‘accomplice’ is used to describe a person who assists another or others in the commission of the crime. There is no formal definition for the term in the Indian Evidence Act. In a case, it was held that “an accomplice is a person who participates in the commission of the actual crime charged against an accused”[1]The ambit of the term accomplice witness usually can extend to persons who the police may not be able to arrest on sufficient grounds but still find them connected to the crime to the extent of being called upon by the prosecution as a witness. This term has been used loosely to describe ‘trap witnesses’ and ‘approvers’. A trap witness is one who is induced by the police to take part in a crime to collect evidence against the others and approvers are those who are arrested but upon presenting evidence against the others are granted  pardon.

Section 133 of the Evidence Act provides for accomplice witnesses to be competent to provide evidence. This may seem prima facie, straightforward, but the jurisprudence around it is very elaborate.

There is  stark difference between the evidence given by an Approver and the confession of a co-accused, while the evidence given by the former is taken on oath and is subject to cross-examination by the accused against whom it will be used; for a co-accused, the confession is made before the trial, in the absence of the accused against whom it is sought to be used, or from the dock at the time of the trial. In either situation, it cannot be subject to cross-examination. Thus making it a weak form of evidence in comparison to the evidence of the former and the latter is only considered in extraordinary circumstances.[2]

 

II – THE ACCOMPLICE WITNESS RELIABILITY

The competency of any witness is only determined by their capability of understanding questions and responding with rational answers and the only disqualifications are on the basis of the intellectual and physical capabilities which hamper the former, thus accomplices are competent to appear as witnesses in accordance to this principle as per Section 118[3] of the Act. Relevancy and admissibility of facts and statements depend on presumptions which have been elaborated on in Section 4 of the Act.[4]

One such general presumption is mentioned in Section 114, where the court has been given the liberty to consider or presume the existence of a fact after deliberation and its likelihood of occurring in the common course of natural events, human conduct, public and private business.[5] This is a general provision that enables the Court to consider any facts, it seems to find reasonable to conclude to be reliable evidence. An illustration mentioned in Section 114 mentions the unreliability of statements of an accomplice witness, which seems to be in contradiction to Section 133. This illustration is to ensure that courts, in keeping with the provision and the illustration in consideration,  exercise judicial discretion with the utmost care and consider evidence of this nature in exceptional circumstances.[6]

In Sant Lal v. State of U.P.[7], the court held that it would be unwise as a rule of prudence to place reliance on the uncorroborated testimony of an approver. The approver would be considered to be a credible source only once all his/her statements are intrinsically similar to the facts of the event.

In cases where there is a lack of sufficient evidence, the evidence given by accomplices becomes a necessity, but only once the same is backed by the best possible corroborative materials. Such distrust is due to the possibility of the accomplice shifting guilt on other co-accused and changing facts such that they are more favourable towards his acquittal or remittance in sentence or punishment.

The rule is: A conviction based on the uncorroborated testimony of an accomplice is not illegal, i.e. – it is not unlawful. But experience teaches us that it is not safe to rely upon the evidence of an accomplice unless it is corroborated.[8]

The nature and extent of corroboration must necessarily vary with the circumstances of each case and it is not possible to enunciate any hard and fast rule. Guidelines for the same were laid down in R v. Baskerville, 1916 2 KB 658. [9]:

  1. It is not necessary that there should be independent confirmation of every detail of the crime-related by the accomplice. It is sufficient if there is a confirmation as to the material circumstance of the crime.
  2. Confirmation by independent evidence must be of the identity of the accused in relation to the crime,e. confirmation in some fact which goes to fix the guilt of the particular person charged by connecting or tending to connect him with the crime. In other words, there must be confirmation that not only has the crime been committed but that the accused committed it.
  3. The corroboration must be by independent testimony, that is by some evidence other than that of the accomplice and therefore one accomplice cannot corroborate the other.
  4. The corroboration need not be by direct evidence that the accused committed the crime, it may be circumstantial.

These guidelines as to corroboration have become a settled rule of practice of such universal application that they now assumed the force of a rule of law[10]

III – A TEST TO CORROBORATE EVIDENCE

Burden of proof to show that a person is an accomplice falls upon the prosecution by providing for ‘character’ as mentioned in Section 53 of the Act. The presumption of unreliability of evidence produced by an accomplice exists due two reasons.

One, the possibility that the accomplice will bargain for immunity thus, potentially shifting the guilt. Second, that by virtue of association with the guilt of having committed a crime,  the accomplice may disregard the moral sanction of an oath. The rule of prudence incorporated by Section 133 is due to the fact that an accomplice who betrays his associates  may not be a fair witness because he might attempt  to please the prosecution by giving evidence which may paint him in favourable light,hoping for a remittance in his/her punishment.[11] There may be times however, when the accomplice    has been forced into  commission of the crime against his/her will.

These reasons thus form the requirement of corroboration of evidence. Material particulars  make the evidence more reliable. In Bhuboni Sahu v. The King Emperor[12] the Court held held that the evidence of the accomplice must be corroborated not only with regard to the occurrence but also against each of the accused sought to be implicated in the crime. Prior to accepting the testimony of the accomplice it is essential  that such evidence has to be corroborated by direct or circumstantial particulars.[13] In the case of the Approvers, the additional requirement depends considerably upon the circumstances under which evidence is tendered.[14]  A  twin test laid down by the court in respect of the evidentiary value of these statements provides that

  1. The accomplice should implicate himself and
  2. His evidence should prove the guilt of the accused beyond a reasonable doubt.[15]

This would only be proved to be beyond a reasonable doubt with the existence of evidence independent of that produced by the accomplice to corroborate the latter. Such corroboration can only be done with material particulars which are additional and independent of the accomplice witness’ evidence. This is due to:

  1. It being probable that the fact story stated by the accomplice is true and it is reasonably safe to act upon it;
  2. It identifies the accused as one of those, or among those, who committed the offence;
  3. It indicates circumstantial evidence showing his connection with the crime
  4. Ordinarily, the testimony of one accomplice should not be sufficient to corroborate that of the other.[16]

The most important double test was laid down in Sarwan Singh Rattan v. State of Punjab[17], where the Court held that an approver can be a reliable witness but if there is no affirmation to the same, then that is an end to the matter, and no question as to whether his evidence is corroborated or not falls to be considered.

In Haroon Haji Abdulla v. State of Maharashtra[18] the Court has reiterated the same principles  followed by  English Courts, by emphasizing on the cautionary approach to  an accomplice’s evidence in the illustration to Section 114:

This cautionary provision incorporates a rule of prudence because an accomplice, who betrays his associates, is not a fair witness and it is possible that he may, to please the prosecution, weave false details into those which are true and his whole story appearing true, there may be no means at hand to sever the false from that which is true. It is for this reason that courts, before they act on accomplice evidence, insist on corroboration in material respects as to the offence itself and also implicating in some satisfactory way, however small, each accused named by the accomplice. In this way the commission of the offence is confirmed by some competent evidence other than the single or unconfirmed testimony of the accomplice and the inclusion by the accomplice of an innocent person is defeated. This rule of caution or prudence has become so ingrained in the consideration of accomplice evidence as to have almost the standing of a rule of law.[19]

Thus, it has been emphasized by courts is that all the evidence presented by the accomplice need not be corroborated to be considered true, but in exceptional cases, where conviction would be based solely on the accomplice’s evidence, there is a requirement of corroboration with material particulars or other evidence.

 

CHAPTER IV OTHER PROVISIONS IN THE ACT

The Indian Evidence Act has other provisions that deal with evidence produced before the court by the co-accused, who make statements about those who have committed the offence. There are various considerations while evaluating the relevancy and reliability of such evidence as has been observed in the following

The proper way to approach a case of this kind is, first, to marshal the evidence against the accused excluding the confession altogether from consideration and see whether, if it is believed, a conviction could safely be based on it.[20]

Section 30 has given courts the liberty to consider the relevancy of such facts, However, the exercise of prudence is  in allowing the evidence to be produced and admitted in court. Where the co-accused has pleaded guilty and has proceeded to implicate guilt on the others accused, the magistrate or judge may record the same but cannot allow the same to be presumed, due to the applicability of this section being limited to joint trials only.  The only situation where the co-accused’s statement would be considered by the courts is when the one implicating such guilt on others, has confessed to being guilty to his acts in totality. This practice is based on the belief that truth is guaranteed due to the guilt of the human conscience. This would be subject to certain conditions, such implicating statement has to be properly recorded and made voluntarily with no serious contradictions.[21] This is to ensure the  co-accused’s right against self-incrimination[22]

Thus it has been established that the confession of a co-accused is not substantive evidence but has only corroborative value.[23]  Section 10 of the Evidence Act applies in those cases when there is prima facie evidence in the form of anything said, done or written by any one of the conspirators in reference to their common intention.[24] In Mirza Akbar v. King Emperor[25], the limits of  admissibility of  evidence was laid down, where the words of Section 10 were to be construed in a narrow ambit, in the most literal sense,

 

V – CONCLUSION

There is no absolute rule of law that an accomplice cannot be believed unless his evidence is confirmed and that a conviction cannot occur based on the testimony of an accomplice alone. S. 133 itself says that such a conviction is not illegal; but the established rule of practice, founded on judicial experience of generations finds that it is dangerous to act exclusively on such evidence. Accomplice requires corroboration by some untainted evidence. The universality and ubiquity of this judicial practice makes it equivalent to a rule of law.[26]

Therefore, there is no conclusive presumption of the evidence provided by the accomplice witnesses. The test laid down by the Supreme Court, is in sync with the position this type of evidence holds in English Law. The consideration of the evidence presented by the accomplice witness is a particular type of evidence which has to be balanced, as it lies on the fine line of being the most reliable as it comes from one of the most primary participants of the crime and but also tainted by the accomplice’s conflicting interest in remittance of his sentence or punishment which may cause him to shift the burden of guilt.

The practice of applying the rule of prudence and giving courts the liberty to consider the evidence of accomplice witnesses under Section 114 of the Act is thus, a reasonable method to adjudicate the reliability and relevancy of this type of evidence. The conviction of the accused on the sole basis of the evidence of an accomplice is not illegal, but it is preferable to have material particulars that could corroborate the portion of the evidence that concludes to the conviction of the accused.

 

[1] R. K. Dalmia vs. Delhi Administration (1962 AIR 1821, 1963 SCR (1) 253)

[2] Vepa Sarathi, Law Of Evidence 317 (Abhinanadan Malik 7th ed. 2017).

[3] Ibid

[4] The Indian Evidence Act, 1872, No. 1, Acts of Parliament, 1872.

[5]Ibid

[6] 2 Sudipto Sarkar, Law of evidence 2242 (VR Manohar 16th ed.  2009).

[7] 2006 Cri LJ 690 (All)

[8] R v. Ramsaran (1885) A.W.H. 306, 310.

[9] R v. Baskerville, 1916 2 KB 658.

[10] Ibid , also see R v. Chagan, 14 B 331, 344

[11] Godrej Soap Ltd v. State, 1991 Cri LJ 859, 866 (MP)

[12] AIR 1949 PC 257

[13] Mohan v. State 1996 Cri LJ 48, 53 (Mad)

[14] Banu Singh v.R, 10 CWN 962

[15] Adambhai Sulemanbhai Ajmeri v. State of Gujrat, (2014) 7 SCC 716.

[16] K Hashim v. State of Tamil Nadu, (2005) 1 SCC 237.

[17] AIR 1957 SCC 637.

[18] AIR 1986 SC 832

[19] Ibid

[20] Kashmira Singh v. State of M.P. , AIR 1952 SC 159

[21] Vepa Sarathi, Law Of Evidence 180 (Abhinanadan Malik 7th ed. 2017).

[22] Article 20, Constitution of India, 1950.

[23] Kalpnath Rai v. State, (1997) 8 SCC 732

[24] Mohd Ajmal Amir Kasab v. State of Maharastra (2012) 9 SCC 1

[25] (1939-40) 67 IA 336

[26] 2 Sudipto Sarkar, Law of evidence (VR Manohar 16th ed.  2009).