HC sets aside conviction, sentence of man found ‘medically unfit’

Govt asked to consider ability of District Council judges to deal with serious matters

SHILLONG, Aug 23: The High Court of Meghalaya on Tuesday set aside the judgement of conviction and sentencing of a man in a triple murder case after observing that a District Council Court had “overlooked or deliberately ignored” a medical report that indicated he was psychotic and unfit to stand trial.
A division bench of Chief Justice Sanjib Banerjee and Justice W Diengdoh came down heavily on the judges of the district councils and asked the state government to consider their quality and ability before conferring authority on them to deal with serious matters.
The court made the stinging remarks on its order. It ordered that the man is released and admitted to a “proper medical facility”, run by the State, pending further orders of the trial court.
The bench said it appears that the appellant is of unsound mind since he was accused of committing the murder of his parents and a sibling. It said several documents revealed the trial could not have taken place as there was a firm medical opinion that he was unfit to stand trial and required treatment.
“Despite such medical status report of March 7, 2012 issued by the Senior Medical and Health Officer, Psychiatrist, Meghalaya Institute of Mental Health and Neurological Sciences, Shillong being forwarded to the trial court by the Superintendent of District Jail, Shillong under cover of a letter dated March 14, 2012, the trial court proceeded to record the statement of the appellant without referring to his mental condition or the medical opinion forwarded to the court,” the order of the bench said.
The FIR was lodged on August 2, 2011 and the appellant was arrested on August 3, 2011. Pursuant to the initial observation in course of the appellant’s medical examination, he was admitted in MIMHANS on September 20, 2011 and his medical status report of March 7, 2012 clearly indicated he was psychotic with no insight of his own illness and was unfit to stand trial as he required long-term treatment to prevent further deterioration, the bench said.
It said even in the usual course, the combined impugned order of conviction and sentence of September 15, 2014 cannot be sustained as it does not resemble the outcome of any meaningful or reasonable process of adjudication or indicate the remotest application of mind.
The impugned order was passed by a Judge in a District Council Court authorised by the Governor to take up heinous offences involving harsh punishment as long as the matter was between a tribal and another.
“Though the Sixth Schedule to the Constitution dispenses with the application of the letter of the Code of Criminal Procedure, yet fundamental rules of justice need to be followed, particularly in course of a criminal trial and high authorities instruct that even if a confession is made by an accused of sound mind, the conviction should not be founded simply on the admission; but should be seen as corroborative material if the evidence otherwise indicates the high likelihood of the commission of the offence by the accused,” the bench said.
In this case, the bench said, despite the trial court being informed of the mental condition of the appellant, it proceeded to pass the order of conviction.
“…Without reference to the applicable law and the relevant provision of the Penal Code, the trial court proceeded on its ipse dixit to convict the appellant and sentence him to 14 years’ simple imprisonment, including the period already spent in detention,” the bench said.
As pointed out on behalf of the State by the Public Prosecutor that Section 329 of the Code of Criminal Procedure provides a mechanism in case of a person of unsound mind being tried before any court, the bench said the detailed procedure requires the court to assess, upon obtaining expert medical report, the mental condition of the accused and to not proceed with the trial till such time that the accused is found fit to stand trial so as to be able to make out his defence.
“Merely because the Sixth Schedule to the Constitution does not require the letter of the Code to be adhered to does not imply that common sense and all fundamental canons of justice have to be thrown to the wind by the District Council Court, surprisingly authorised to deal with such a serious matter when it is obvious that the Judge concerned lacks basic sense of justice and is completely bereft of domain knowledge on the subject,” the bench observed.
It said since the trial could not have been undertaken given the medical report of March 7, 2012 and the District Council Court conducting trial completely overlooked or deliberately ignored the same, the entire process is set at naught and the judgment of conviction and the consequent sentence are set aside.
“The matter is remanded to the trial court to be dealt with in accordance with law, particularly keeping in mind the requirements of Section 329 of the Code. The trial court will not resume the trial…till such time an expert opinion is rendered in accordance with law as to the appellant herein being fit to stand trial. In any event, even if the appellant is found fit to stand trial and repeats the confession or admission made earlier, the trial court must look into the evidence and use the confession as another piece of evidence and not the sole material to convict the appellant,” the order said.
The trial court was asked to be mindful of the statutory mandate as to sentencing and not arbitrarily invent a form of punishment for a particular offence which is unknown to law.
The court ordered that a copy of this judgment is shared with the state’s Law Secretary so that future steps are taken cautiously before conferring authority on District Council Courts or Judges ill-equipped to administer justice in accordance with the basic tenets of law.
“In view of the spirit of Section 330 of the Code, the appellant is entitled to be released and admitted for treatment at a proper medical facility run by the State pending further orders of the trial court,” the bench said.
It said another aspect that this matter brought to the fore is the poor legal assistance rendered to those who may not be able to afford lawyers’ fees. The court said it is the duty of the State to ensure that an accused gets adequate legal assistance to set up his defence even if the accused is not able to afford a lawyer to represent him.
“Thanks to the Legal Services Authorities Act, 1987 and the apparatus set up thereunder, there is now a system of legal aid counsel being provided at the High Courts and also at the district court level. However, busy lawyers are not inclined to do pro bono work and fees have shot through the roof as the once noble profession is now a business that cares little for morals and scruples as long as the moolah rolls in…
“Thus, inexperienced advocates queue up to be appointed as legal aid counsel to make the little by way of fees that come with such appointment. Since the pay may not be attractive or even adequate, matters are often treated in a cavalier manner only to log the fees without rendering any assistance or quality assistance to the needy litigant,” the order said.
The court asked the State Legal Services Authority to take note of this and ensure that appointments as legal aid counsel are not made on extraneous considerations or merely because an application has been made thereof.
“Till such time that the legal education system is strengthened and burgeoning cattle-shed law colleges are arrested from unleashing completely untrained personnel to be qualified to obtain license for practice, even as the statutory watchdog plays the fiddle, a strict vigil must be maintained on the appointment of legal aid counsel so that the colossal disservice that was done to the appellant in this case, instead of rendering any assistance, is not repeated. The only silver lining here is the quality of assistance rendered to the appellant by legal aid counsel in the High Court,” the order further said.

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