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Circumstantial Evidence

This article deals with the concept of circumstantial evidence under the Indian Evidence Act, 1872, along with important case laws. 

By: Raksha Chauhan, Third Year BBA LLB Student at Ramaiah Institute of Legal Studies.

Understanding the word ‘Evidence’

Evidence is derived from the Latin word “evidentia/evidere” which means to show clearly or to prove something. Section 3 of the Indian Evidence Act, 1872 defines Evidence as – “Evidence” means and includes –

  • All statements which the Court permits or requires to be made before it by witnesses, in relation to matters of fact under inquiry; such statements are called oral evidence; 
  • All documents including electronic records produced for the inspection of the Court; such documents are called documentary evidence.

Facts in issue means the matters which are in dispute or which form the subject matter of the investigation.

Evidence can be broadly divided into two categories: direct and indirect circumstantial evidence.

Direct evidence is evidence which unambiguously and absolutely establishes a fact or proves any contentions made by the party. Direct evidence does not require corroboration and does not require interference to form a link between various facts.

Indirect evidence (also known as circumstantial evidence) proves a fact by proving circumstances which form a basis for reasonable speculations of the occurrence of the fact in issue. It is the evidence which is not drawn from direct observation of the fact in issue. There is a misconception that conviction of an accused cannot be based on circumstantial evidence, which is entirely false. Criminal convictions largely rely on circumstantial evidence, though it must be adequate to meet established standards of proof. Sir James Stephen was the first one to use the term circumstantial evidence in India, stating circumstantial evidence to be facts that are relevant to the other facts, whose existence can be proved by the existence of other facts. Circumstantial evidence is a chain of events that are unrelated to each other but all that when put together creates circumstances leading to the commission of the crime and a conclusion can be derived from that chain of events. Information related to the said chain of events in civil or criminal cases set up the existence of a fact or any assertion a party seeks to prove. Circumstantial evidence must be supported by a significant amount of corroboration. If convictions are based on circumstantial evidence then it requires an unbreakable link between the criminal and the crime, so that accurate inference can be derived. 

Sir James Stephen was the first one to use the term circumstantial evidence in India, stating circumstantial evidence to be facts that are relevant to the other facts, whose existence can be proved by the existence of other facts.

For instance, a witness testifies that he saw a defendant fire a bullet into the body of a person who then died on the spot, this is direct testimony or direct evidence of material facts in murder, and then the only question arises is whether the witness is telling the truth or not. But when the witness testifies that he heard the shot and when he reached on the scene, the accused was standing over the corpse with a pistol in his hand, here the evidence is circumstantial or indirect. It can also be inferred that the accused may have been shooting at the escaping killer or have been a bystander who picked up the weapon after the killer had dropped it.

Importance of Circumstantial Evidence

Many times there is no direct evidence available against the criminal for the crime committed, so here circumstantial evidence comes into the picture but there is a misconception that circumstantial evidence is not reliable but this might not always be true. In Bodh Raj V. State of Jammu & Kashmir (1), the Court held that circumstantial evidence can be a sole basis for conviction and there are many cases where judgements were solely given on the basis of circumstantial evidence. Whether it is in the form of testimony or physical evidence it may be advantageous because it comes from different sources, it can be used for corroboration. Even circumstantial evidence is difficult to suppress or fabricate. 

Limitation

In a number of cases, judgements have been given solely on the basis of circumstantial evidence but circumstantial evidence has certain limits as it is indirect and all pieces of evidence must be put together to determine whether it leads to a reasonable conclusion or not. An inference drawn out of circumstantial evidence may not be correct all the time as it is based on one’s point of view. Circumstantial evidence requires corroboration whereas this is not a requirement in case of indirect evidence.

In a number of cases, judgements have been given solely on the basis of circumstantial evidence but circumstantial evidence has certain limits as it is indirect and all pieces of evidence must be put together to determine whether it leads to a reasonable conclusion or not.

Last Seen Theory

The last seen theory is one of the essential parts of an event in the chain of circumstances that would entirely establish the guilt of the accused with some certainty. According to this theory, the law presumes that it is the person who was last seen with the deceased, would have killed the deceased. The burden shifts onto the accused and he must prove that he left before the person’s death. Though, this theory alone cannot establish the guilt of an accused. To prove the guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, it requires corroboration.

Case laws

In Bodh Raj V. State of Jammu & Kashmir (1), the Court laid down the conditions that must be fully satisfied for a conviction based on circumstantial evidence, which are as follows:

  • Circumstances from which the guilt is established must be fully proved.
  • All the facts must be consistent with the hypothesis of the guilt of the accused.
  • Circumstances must be conclusive in nature and tendency.
  • Circumstances should, to a moral certainty, actually exclude every hypothesis except the one proposed to be proved.

In Ashok Kumar v. State of Madhya Pradesh (2), the Supreme Court held that the chain of events should establish the guilt of the accused for circumstantial evidence to sustain the conviction, without the probability of any other alternative. 

In Manu Sharma v. State (NCT of Delhi) (3), the court awarded the accused with life imprisonment for the murder of Jessica Lal, on the grounds of circumstantial evidence. If the link between the accused and commission of the offence cannot be broken, it is immaterial to establish a motive and then there is no necessity to provide proof of motive.

If the link between the accused and commission of the offence cannot be broken, it is immaterial to establish a motive and then there is no necessity to provide proof of motive.

In Sharad v. State of Maharashtra (4), the Supreme Court held that the circumstances must be fully established from which the conclusion of guilt is to be drawn. There must be a chain of evidence and no reason consistent with the innocence of the accused must be left out. 

Conclusion

Circumstantial evidence plays a pivotal role in criminal cases when there is absence of any direct evidence. Though direct evidence is considered more effective and reliable, many successful criminal prosecutions solely rely on circumstantial evidence. The notion that circumstantial evidence is less reliable than direct evidence is false. The Supreme Court has given landmark judgements in different cases solely on the basis of circumstantial evidence.

REFERENCES

  1. AIR 2002 SC 316.
  2. AIR 1989 SC 1890.
  3. (2010) 6 SCC 1.
  4. 1984 AIR 1622, 1985 SCR (1) 88.

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