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On March 30, Justices Prafulla C Pant and Rohinton Fali Nariman delivered two separate verdicts, disagreeing with each other in a criminal case, within eight days of reserving it.
Could they have given a unanimous verdict, if they had spent more time discussing it among themselves, to iron out their differences?
Possibly, as they had five more weeks at their disposal, going by the ideal time-frame as suggested by the Supreme Court in the Anil Rai judgment.
The case, Ganesh Shamrao Andekar & Anr v State of Maharashtra, a Criminal Appeal (547/2007), will now be listed before a three-Judge bench. Judgment in this 10-year old appeal was reserved only on March 22.
Why did the judges disagree?
Justices Pant and Nariman disagreed on whether the Bombay High Court was correct in reversing the acquittal by the trial court of two accused, Ganesh Andekar and Avinash Andekar, for having committed the murder of their neighbour, Raghunath, following a property dispute in 1986.
While Justice Pant held that the High Court was correct, Justice Nariman disagreed saying that an order of acquittal can only be interfered with when there are compelling and substantial reasons for doing so, and if it is found that the trial court order is clearly unreasonable, palpably wrong, manifestly erroneous, or demonstrably unsustainable.
In Justice Nariman’s opinion, the trial court order did not fall in any of these categories, and the High Court, in convicting the appellants and reversing a well-reasoned order of acquittal, has committed a grave error.
Justice Pant, on the contrary, held that the High Court has given a categorical finding that the trial court decision was perverse; as such, it cannot be said that the High Court could not have taken the view supported by evidence on record.
According to Justice Pant, the deceased’s daughter and wife – the two witnesses – had described the blows inflicted on the body of the deceased after they reached the crime spot. So far as the argument raising possibility of commission of murder by someone other than the accused mentioned in the FIR is concerned, that would be a mere conjecture, Justice Pant held.
“Proof beyond reasonable doubt is a guideline, not a fetish. A Judge does not preside over a criminal trial merely to see that no innocent man is punished. A Judge also presides to see that a guilty man does not escape. Both are public duties.”
The crucial fact on which both the judges differed is the importance to be attached to who got the deceased admitted in the hospital, after he suffered the fatal injury. Justice Nariman found that the hospital records which showed one Rekha as having admitted the injured Raghunath, was not investigated by the police, who did not find out who Rekha was.
The prosecution, however, claimed that it was the deceased’s daughter, Rohini, who took him to the hospital, which was corroborated by another witness. While Justice Nariman considered this a serious discrepancy, Justice Pant held that this did not have much relevance.
Justice Nariman found other discrepancies in the evidence submitted by the prosecution, which failed to convince Justice Pant.
When members of a two-judge bench are split on the verdict, the file is placed before the Chief Justice of India, for listing of the case before a three-judge bench. The two appellants, who are currently on bail, need not surrender and serve the rest of their sentences, as directed by Justice Pant. Their fate will now be decided by a three-Judge bench.
It also means that the outcome of this 30-year old case will be further delayed because of what appears to be a minor disagreement between two brother Judges.
Inordinate delay in delivery of the judgments after reserving them is surely a factor which aggravates pendency and distorts justice delivery. Judges’ reluctance to spend enough time in discussing the case before they write their judgments could lead to split verdicts, and a waste of judicial time.
The discussion of the split verdict is not to ignore the overall trend in the Supreme Court to deliver judgments soon after reserving them.
Of the twenty-five judgments delivered last week, as many as twenty-three have been delivered within six weeks of being reserved. There were, however, two judgments, whose case details were not immediately available. Therefore, nothing definite can be said about them at present.
Of the twenty-five, Justice Kurian Joseph authored ten, while Justices Abhay Manohar Sapre and Deepak Gupta authored two each. Justices R Banumathi, NV Ramana, Navin Sinha, Dipak Misra, AM Khanwilkar, AK Sikri, L Nageswara Rao, Prafulla C Pant, Rohinton Fali Nariman, Mohan M Shantanagoudar and Ashok Bhushan authored one each.
Of the twenty-five, nine were non-reportable judgments, which mainly dealt with Rent Act and matrimonial disputes.
Bar & Bench tracked 21 cases in which judgments were reserved last week. They are:
This is the infamous Nirbhaya murder case appeals, which the Court began to hear on March 15, 2014, when another bench stayed the death sentence of the two accused, Mukesh and Pawan Kumar Gupta. On July 14, 2014, it stayed the execution of the other two accused, Vinay Sharma and Akshay Kumar Singh.
The matter was not heard for the whole of 2015. On April 4 last year, a bench of Justices Dipak Misra, V Gopala Gowda and Kurian Joseph began to hear the case. On July 11 last year, Justices Banumathi and Nagappan substituted Justices Gopala Gowda and Kurian Joseph on the bench. The present bench comprising justices Dipak Misra, Banumathi and Ashok Bhushan began hearing the case on July 18 last year, and has concluded it in 37 days, spread over nine months.