30 Mar 2010

Standard of proof for determining corruption in election: Supreme Court

In a recently reported decision [AIR 2010 SC 905] the Supreme Court has reaffirmed the test relating to 'standard of proof' required to determine allegations of corrupt practices in elections. Declaring that an allegation of having indulged in corrupt practices in election is on the same footing as making an allegation of a criminal act having been done by a party, the standard of proof required to be adopted for determining the allegations of corruption was equivalent to one in criminal proceedings i.e. 'beyond reasonable doubt' and not one of civil procedure where the matter was one only of 'preponderance of probabilities'. 

The Supreme Court declared the law as under;
10. Before we proceed to examine the facts of the case to consider the question as to whether charges of corrupt practices were established against the appellant, we deem it necessary to reiterate that a charge of corrupt practice envisaged by the Act is to be equated with a criminal charge and the standard of proof thereof would not be preponderance of probabilities as in a civil action but proof beyond reasonable doubt as in a criminal trial. If this test is not applied, a very serious prejudice is likely to be caused to the successful candidate whose election would not only be set aside, he may also incur disqualification to contest an election for a certain period entailing even extinction of his political career. Undoubtedly, the onus lies heavily on the election petitioner to make out a strong case for setting aside an election.
11. In Ch. Razik Ram (supra), speaking for the Bench, Sarkaria, J. observed thus: 

“..It is well settled that a charge of corrupt practice is substantially akin to a criminal charge. The commission of a corrupt practice entails serious penal consequences. It not only vitiates the election of the candidate concerned but also disqualifies him from taking part in elections for a considerably long time. Thus, the trial of an election petition being in the nature of an accusation, bearing the indelible stamp of quasi-criminal action, the standard of proof is the same as in a criminal trial. Just as in a criminal case, so in an election petition, the respondent against whom the charge of corrupt practice is levelled, is presumed to be innocent unless proved guilty. A grave and heavy onus therefore, rests on the accuser to establish each and every ingredient of the charge by clear, unequivocal and unimpeachable evidence beyond reasonable doubt. It is true that there is no difference between the general rules of evidence in civil and criminal cases, and the definition of "proved" in Section 3 of the Evidence Act does not draw a distinction between civil and criminal cases. Nor does this definition insist on perfect proof because absolute certainty amounting to demonstration is rarely to be had in the affairs of life. Nevertheless, the standard of measuring proof prescribed by the definition, is that of a person of prudence and practical good sense. ‘Proof’ means the effect of the evidence adduced in the case. Judged by the standard of prudent man, in the light of the nature of onus cast by law, the probative effect of evidence in civil and criminal proceedings is markedly different. The same evidence which may be sufficient to regard a fact as proved in a civil suit, may be considered insufficient for a conviction in a criminal action. While in the former, a mere preponderance of probability may constitute an adequate basis of decision, in the latter a far higher degree of assurance and judicial certitude is requisite for a conviction. The same is largely true about proof of a charge of corrupt practice, which cannot be established by a mere balance of probabilities and, if, after giving due consideration and effect to the totality of the evidence and circumstances of the case, the mind of the Court is left rocking with reasonable doubt - not being the doubt of a timid, fickle or vacillating mind - as to the veracity of the charge, it must hold the same as not proved”.
12. A three-Judge Bench of this Court in Jeet Mohinder Singh (supra), referring to a large number of earlier decisions, culled out the following legal principles, relevant for our purpose, in the field of election jurisprudence:
“(i) The success of a candidate who has won at an election should not be lightly interfered with. Any petition seeking such interference must strictly conform to the requirements of the law. Though the purity of the election process has to be safeguarded and the Court shall be vigilant to see that people do not get elected by flagrant breaches of law or by committing corrupt practices, the setting aside of an election involves serious consequences not only for the returned candidate and the constituency, but also for the public at large inasmuch as re-election involves an enormous load on the public funds and administration. [See: Jagan Nath Vs. Jaswant Singh, Gajanan Krishnaji Bapat Vs. Dattaji Raghobaji Meghe].
(ii) Charge of corrupt practice is quasi-criminal in character. If substantiated, it leads not only to the setting aside of the election of the successful candidate, but also of his being disqualified to contest an election for a certain period. It may entail extinction of a person's public life and political career. A trial of an election petition though within the realm of civil law is akin to trial on a criminal charge. Two consequences follow. Firstly, the allegations relating to commission of a corrupt practice should be sufficiently clear and stated precisely so as to afford the person charged a full opportunity of meeting the same. Secondly, the charges when put to issue should be proved by clear, cogent and credible evidence. To prove charge of corrupt practice a mere preponderance of probabilities would not be enough. There would be a presumption of innocence available to the person charged. The charge shall have to be proved to the hilt, the standard of proof being the same as in a criminal trial. [See: Quamarul Islam Vs. S.K. Kanta, F.A. Sapa Vs. Singora, Manohar Joshi etc. Vs. Damodar Tatyaba alias Dada Saheb Rupwati etc. and Ram Singh Vs. Col. Ram Singh].
(iii) The Appellate Court attaches great value to the opinion formed by the trial Judge more so when the trial Judge recording findings of fact is the same who had recorded the evidence. The Appellate Court shall remember that the jurisdiction to try an election petition has been vested in a Judge of the High Court. Secondly, the trial Judge may have had the benefit of watching the demeanour of witnesses and forming first-hand opinion of them in the process of evaluation of evidence. The Supreme Court may reassess the evidence and come to its own conclusions on feeling satisfied that in recording findings of fact the High Court has disregarded settled principles governing the approach to evidence or committed grave or palpable errors.[See:Gajanan Krishnaji Bapat (supra); Kripa Shankar Chatterji Vs. Gurudas Chatterjee]”. 
13. Similar opinion has been expressed in subsequent decisions, including Surinder Singh (supra) and Mercykutty Amma (supra) on which reliance had been placed by learned counsel for the appellant.

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