Value of Precedents in Criminal Cases (Precedents and Criminal Cases)
Author: Nathan Gomes Student, Gujarat Law Society, Ahmedabad
The settled principle of law has been that a Judge shall not import words while interpreting the provisions or the law and thereby shall interpret the same in the way it is written. It is contrary to all the given rules of constructions if words are read into an act or law, unless it is absolutely necessary to do so. The very base or root of the Indian legal system strives on the principle that the judges are obliged to interpret and rule in a manner that is consistent with the statute in hand and also consistent with the previous judicial decisions on the very same subject.
The question that is posed before us today when we consider this proposition of “Value of Precedents in Criminal Cases” is that, how far and up to what extent can we rely upon the settled principle of law or a previous decision (Stare Decisis) of the court in a criminal case? How far can reliance be placed on the appreciation of evidence in previous cases in order to decide a present case at hand? When on one hand we hold that Criminal cases are predominantly fact based and that the value of precedents in these cases is minimum since the facts, circumstances and evidence of each case are different, can we then say that a present case though having similar facts to the previous case, was decided per incuriam? Through this aforementioned proposition, we would try and deal with some of these questions which we face.
A judicial system in every legal system is labeled with the duty of adjudicating the rights of every citizen of the nation unlike the earlier period where courts were guided by their own sense of justice and customs. The advent of legislations has eased the work of the judges, though they are still posed with a duty of imparting justice. A funnier fact is that “Judges are not bound to decide correctly. There is a presumption in law that a lawyer knows the law but there is no absolute presumption that a Judge should know the law, a Judge is only called to balance two sides or the arguments presented before him”. However, that being said, all judgments passed by the court of law, whether right or wrong, cited as an authority to decide a similar set of facts and which can be relied upon by the courts to arrive at a decision in future is a Judicial Precedent. Here we come across a question which we posed in the previous paragraph which may be reiterated. The Supreme Court has on several occasions held that a binding precedent has the merit of promoting certainty in Judicial decisions and consistency in judicial decisions and also enables an organic development of law. However, the first question that comes to our mind is what is a Binding Precedent? Secondly, is everything said in the court of law – Binding? And thirdly, is the value of precedents the same in criminal cases as that in civil or any other matter?
In order to understand the first two questions posed in the aforesaid para, it is important to have a clear understanding of the doctrine of Ratio Decidendi and Obiter Dicta along with Article 141 of the Constitution. Opting to stick to the proposition in hand, what is more important to deal and highlight is the question, i.e., is the value of precedents the same in criminal cases as that of civil or any other matter?
The strange reality is that there can be no empirical formula as to how one shall react in a given situation and what would be the impact and effect of the same. We have and will have to live with this harsh reality of cases being dealt with non-application of mind, especially by the lower judiciary. It is true that Precedents cover everything said or done, thereby furnishing a rule for subsequent practice. However, what is an accepted fact is that every case warrants application of mind and also expects the judges to not be blind followers.
A similar stance has also been taken by the Supreme Court wherein it stated that “while applying a decision to a latter case, the court must carefully try to ascertain the true principle laid down by the court and not to just pick out words or sentences from the judgments which are divorced from the context of question under consideration, meaning thereby, how a particular person reacts in a given situation may be the determinative factor as far as a given case at hand is concerned, there cannot be a universal application to all cases which is brought before the court irrespective of the factual matrix that a court is facing in a particular case.
The Apex Court in the case of Megh Singh v. State of Punjab held that, “Circumstantial Flexibility, one additional or different fact may make a world of a difference between the conclusions in two cases or between two accused in the same case. Each case depends on its own facts and a close similarity between one case and another is not enough because a single significant detail may alter the entire aspect. It is more pronounced in criminal cases where the backbone of adjudication is fact based”. This decision of the Supreme Court apparently covers a major part of the questions posed by us under para 2 of the said writing. The only question which still remains unanswered is that will such decisions be hit by the doctrine of Per Incuriam?
What I hold in answering the above question is that when we say that each case and more particularly a criminal case depends on facts and that similar situations in two cases are not enough to warrant like treatment as detailed study of the same may alter the entire aspect. The Supreme Court in the case of Pandurang, Tukia & Bhillia v. The State of Hyderabad has categorically held that, a question of fact however similar cannot be used as a precedent to determine the conclusion on the facts in another. The courts thereby should avoid the temptation of deciding cases by matching the colour of one case with that of another. Therefore, the third question posed is also concluded in negative as what I opine is that in order to decide on which side of the line a particular case falls shall surely depend on a broader consideration of the facts and circumstances and that mere resemblance to another case would not make it all decisive.
I would conclude by saying that though on one hand precedents hold the utmost value and also provides for certainty but on the other hand, it also hinders the development of law when these precedents are applied without an active application of mind. It is pertinent to note that as far as the precedent value in criminal cases is concerned, in several cases, it would be very limited since several matters on the criminal side would be decided on facts, hence, unless there is a pure question of law in applicability of the precedents, criminal courts are expected to be very careful and cautious. Therefore, what is of utmost significance is that the courts while applying previous decisions shall bear in mind to maintain a balance between the need to be certain and the development in Law.
 AIR 2004 SC 3566
 2010 (4) SCC 595
 AIR 1989 SC 1933
 AIR 1003 SC 43
 AIR 2003 SC 3184
 1955 AIR 216, 1955 SCR (1) 1083
 2004 (2) ALD Cri 689, 2005 CriLJ 1315