M. Rishiteshwari Case: Rectification of the Judicial Error



“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”.

Martin Luther King II

INTRODUCTION

A Strong and Reliable Legal System is the expectation of citizens from its Nation. A system that can provide them with justice. Judiciary, in addition being a co-equal branch of the government along with legislature and executive, holds a very important position in the Country, the position of the beholder of justice. The courts not only play the role of adjudicating the disputes between the parties, but also protect the rights and liberty of the individuals, thereby deepening the faith of the people in the judicial system. But this faith faces a sense of doubt when a flare of injustice is seen rising igniting a threat to justice. This is the situation when there is ‘Miscarriage of Justice’.

Miscarriage of justice refer to a situation of failure of justice system, that is, when the judicial system fails in its capacity to provide justice to the seeker. It’s an unjust outcome of a case leading to the errors, generally referred to as ‘Error of Impunity’- a failure to hold the culpable person guilty. These errors are a threat to the justice system, it is very important to pay full attention to such failures and analyse in order to discover the point from where it all went wrong, followed by a period of reflection and the step to correct it to restore the faith in justice.

An instance of miscarriage of justice was discovered by the High Court of Andhra Pradesh in a case of sexual harassment attracting the provisions of the POCSO Act, when the Additional District judge and the Sessions Judge arbitrarily arrived at an erroneous conclusion by holding that the facts of the case do not attract the provisions of the POCSO Act. The Judge of the Special Courts was held to be under gross blunder due to less concentration by stating the wrong facts and thereby erroneously holding the criminals not liable under the POCSO Act. But the High Court of Andhra Pradesh took cognizance of the matter without much delay and held the pillar of justice by accepting judicial error, clearly stating the scope of the POCSO Act thereby holding the criminals liable under the same.

POCSO ACT, 2012

To deal with child sexual abuse cases, the Government has brought in a special law, namely, The Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act, 2012. The POCSO Act, 2012 is a comprehensive law to provide for the protection of children from the offences of sexual assault, sexual harassment and pornography, while safeguarding the interests of the child at every stage of the judicial process by incorporating child-friendly mechanisms for reporting, recording of evidence, investigation and speedy trial of offences through designated Special Courts.

The said Act defines a child as any person below eighteen years of age, and defines different forms of sexual abuse, including penetrative and non-penetrative assault, as well as sexual harassment and pornography, and deems a sexual assault to be “aggravated” under certain circumstances, such as when the abused child is mentally ill or when the abuse is committed by a person in a position of trust or authority vis-à-vis the child, like a family member, police officer, teacher, or doctor.The said Act prescribes stringent punishment graded as per the gravity of the offence, with a maximum term of rigorous imprisonment for life, and fine.

BACKGROUND OF THE CASE: ERROR BY THE SPECIAL COURT

“It is a most pathetic case where a victim girl who has entered the precincts of the University with a fond hope on her bright future has ended her life by committing suicide on account of the alleged sexual assault and sexual harassment to which she was subjected in the hands of the accused.” The victim was a girl who got herself enrolled in Acharya Nagarjuna University in Guntur District in 2014 and joined First Year course of Architecture. There were 3 accused in the case who were the seniors of the girl, started humiliating and harassing the victim. The girl was subjected to persistent humiliation by the three accused as they tried to maintain sexual relations with her and on being rejected, spread rumours about her character also, committed the crime of ragging. This made girl suffer severe agony and emotional turmoil on account of the sexually indecent behaviour of the accused and the principal of the university paid a deaf ear to her condition, she committed suicide in her hostel room in July 2015.

The charge sheet was filed against the accused for offences punishable under Sections 354, 354(A)(2), 354(D)(2), 306 and 109 of Indian Penal Code and under Sections 4(i) and (v) and 7(1) and 2) of the Andhra Pradesh Prohibition of Ragging Act, 1997 and under Sections 8 and 12 of the POCSO Act. However, when it was presented before the Special POCSO Court, the Judge found a fault in filing the charge sheet against the accused under POCSO Act on the grounds of the girl being a major at the time of suicide and also stated that no complain was lodged about sexual harassment when she was a minor. Hence, it was held even by the Additional District and Session Judge that the present case does not attract the provisions of punishment under the POCSO Act and refused to take cognizance of the same.

Aggrieved by the erroneous judgement of the Special Court and their failure in the wrong application of facts and the POCSO Act, the father of the victim approached the Andhra Pradesh High Court challenging the order passed by the lower court.

ERROR RECTIFICATION: ANDHRA PRADESH HIGH COURT

The Andhra Pradesh High Court took cognizance of the case and properly examined the facts. It was submitted by the defence counsel that the case does not attract the provisions of penalty under the POCSO Act because the objective of the act is to protect the dignity of the children below 18 years while the victim girl was an adult when the suicide was committed. Also, there were no records of the complaints filed against the accused about the sexual harassment and sexual assault towards the girl in her minor years, during her life time or by any other on her behalf. Hence, it was contended that the accused are not to be held liable under section 7 and 11 of the POCSO Act. But the High Court rejected the contentions made by the defence counsel and upheld the justice for the victim by clearly explaining the scope and the objective of the POCSO Act.

The court stated that when the POCSO Act was established, the main objective behind the Act was to preserve the ‘best interest and the well-being’ of the child and to hold the emotional, healthy, physical, intellectual and social development of a child as of paramount importance and respect the child’s right to privacy and confidentiality. Accordingly, Section 2(d) also defines a child to be someone below the age of 18 years.

Though the victim was major when the suicide was committed and there were no complaints lodged by the victim during her minority age, the fact that the victim suffered sexual harassment and humiliation since the time of her being a minor, when she took admission into the college, cannot be ignored. The acts of the accused of sexually harassing the victim were initiated in the years of her minority from the time of her starting of the first year and continued till and even after her age of majority until it finally led to her death. This view was finally held by the Andhra Pradesh High Court.

The court held that the decision of the lower court to decline the acknowledgement of the charges against the accused under the POCSO Act led to ‘the defeat of the very object of the enactment of the act’. The High Court accepted the blunder committed by the lower court, criticized the court for completely losing sight of the fact that when the acts of the sexual assault and sexual harassment were committed by the accused, punishable under section 7 and section 11 respectively, the girl was still a minor, which cannot be ignored at all. Hence, the case, prima facie, attracts the provisions of the POCSO Act.

CONCLUSION

The miscarriage of the justice committed by the court in this case due to the non-application of their mind and the facts was finally observed by the High Court and accordingly, to prevent such errors prevailing in the society and pose a threat to justice, the injustice meted out to the victim was undone by passing the following landmark decree.

“… when facts of the case prima facie constitute an offence under the POCSO Act, the Special Court is under legal obligation to take the charge-sheet on to the file and take cognizance of the case against them and try the accused according to law. It cannot abrogate its lawful duty and refuse to take the case on to the file and defeat the very object of the Act and the purpose of establishing the Special Court.”

This case is a good example of how miscarriage of justice can be prevented to arise as a threat to the justice system and also to maintain the faith of the people in their Legal System. It would not be reasonable to expect Judicial system to be completely sanitized from the errors. Errors of impunity and miscarriage of justice are bound to happen in a system that relies on the human deduction and human analysis. Mainly, what is important is the continuity of upholding the pillar of justice and the faith of the people in this system by rectifying the errors and preventing such miscarriages. The Judicial system should never forget its role in the society and should take proper cognizance of the matter before any haphazardly handled case shakes the faith of the people and emerges as a threat to ‘Justice’.

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