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Relevancy of Bad Character Evidence In Criminal Proceedings

This article seeks to analyse the relevancy of the evidence of bad character through the provisions of various sections of Indian Evidence Act, Code of Criminal Procedure, Indian Penal Code and several other special laws. It also looks at certain cases where evidence of bad character was relevant and how it set a precedent in law. The article also takes a look at how bad character is relevant not only against the accused person but also against witnesses. The article analyses the scope and limitations relating to bad character evidence under various laws in India.

Indian Evidence Act, 1872 (hereinafter, Evidence Act) provides an exhaustive definition of character under explanation of section 55 which says, character includes both reputation and disposition. Reputation and disputations vary in their meaning.

Under the Evidence Act, unlike in England, evidence can be given both of general character and general disposition. Disposition means the inherent qualities of a person; reputation means the general credit of the person amongst the public. There is a real distinction between reputation and disposition. A man may be reputed to be a good man, but in reality, he may have a bad disposition.

The value of evidence as regards disposition of a person depends not only upon the witness's perspicacity but also on their opportunities to observe a person as well as the person's cleverness to hide his real traits. But a disposition of a man may be made up of many traits, some good and some bad, and only evidence in regard to a particular trait with which the witness is familiar would be of some use.[1]

Section 54 clearly states that bad character evidence is irrelevant in criminal proceedings unless it is in reply to an evidence of good character established by the other party.
It also lays down two exceptions where bad character evidence is relevant:
  1. Where bad character of any person is itself the fact in issue
  2. A previous conviction is relevant in evidence of bad character
In order to analyse the first exception, the case of Sh.Raghu Nath Pandey And Anr. vs Sh. Bobby Bedi and Ors. [2] shall be looked into for understanding the essence despite it being a civil case. In this case, the suit was filed based on the depictions of a freedom fighter named Mangal Pandey in the movie of the same name. In the said movie, Mangal Pandey was depicted as a drunkard and to have been in relationships with prostitutes.

The suit was filed by the descendants of the Mangal Pandey family claiming that the depictions in the movie have hurt their reputation and defamed the person itself as they asserted that the portrayal of Mangal Pandey as a drunkard and the introduction of a prostitute in his life was historically ill-found and had no evidence to support its truthfulness. In this case, the character of Mangal Pandey was itself a fact in issue and therefore evidence of bad character was relevant.

In order to analyse the second exception, the case of Emperor v. Duming[3] shall be referred. It stated that previous conviction can be admitted when the accused is liable for an enhanced punishment under the provision of section 75 of the Indian Penal Code. In such a scenario, such an evidence shall be admissible during cross examination to provide an evidence of bad character. Also, Evidence of a previous conviction may also be relevant under Section 8 of IEA as showing motive or under Explanation 2 to Section 14 of the IEA where the existence of any state of mind, or body, or of bodily feeling, is in issue or is relevant.[4]

Evidence of previous conviction is also made relevant by provisions of 211, 236, 248(3), 298 of Code of Criminal Procedure 1973 (CrPC), Article 117 of Indian Articles of War (Act 5 of 1869), section 14 of Evidence Act, explanation (2), section 43 of Evidence Act illustration (e), section 8 of the Evidence Act showing motive (s 43, illustration (f)). Bad character is also made relevant under Criminal Tribes Act (Act 27 of 1871).

Despite section 54 clearly stating that evidence of bad character shall not be relevant and providing some exceptions to it, it needs to be noted that this section does not override the provisions of any other section which enables evidence of bad character to be relevant and admissible. In Lakshmandas Chaganlal Bhatia And ... vs The State[5] held that section 54 doesn't override other sections in the act which makes admissible such an evidence and thereby it doesn't control any other section.

Examining section 14 [6]explanation 2 and section 15 [7]of the Evidence Act, it appears that previous conviction of accused becomes relevant under the above sections and such an evidence will be admissible despite the provision of section 54. In order to understand this, the following case shall be referred to.

The supreme court while hearing an appeal to the case of Mangal Singh And Ors. vs State of Madhya Bharat[8], examined the contention of the appellant that the lower courts had admitted bad character evidence against the accused. The bench of Justice Imam Bhawati and Justice G. Menon observed that the lower courts made admissible the bad character evidence only for the purpose of ascertaining the motive of the murder. The conviction was based totally upon the statement of witnesses and not on the character of the accused.

Under the provisions of chapter VIII of the Code of Criminal Procedure, evidence of bad character is admissible for security proceedings. The purpose of the chapter is to maintain peace and tranquillity in society by preventive measures wherein previous conduct or bad character of the person concerned becomes relevant.

Although, evidence of character in general is a weak form of evidence in the sense that character alone can't decide conviction or acquittal but in doubtful cases character evidence acts as that extra weighing stone which tilts the weighing machine in one's favour. An evidence of good character in a case which is doubtful will favour the accused in consonance with the principle of innocent until proven guilty. Inference can be drawn to the case of Habeeb Mohammad vs The State of Hyderabad[9] which upheld the relevance of character evidence in criminal cases and that it helps in judging a man's conduct, his criminality or innocence.

Bad character evidence should not be narrowly construed to be only against the parties to the case. In a criminal proceeding, testimonies of witness are also of utmost importance. In cases which only rely on eye witnesses, the defence can easily cast a doubt on the facts of the case in the mind of the judge by discrediting the witness and the burden of proof lies on the prosecution to prove their case beyond reasonable doubt.

Under the provision of section 155 of Evidence Act, evidence can be provided that the witness is unworthy of credit and bad character of the witness can be established et al. Reliance can be put on The Queen v Brown and Headly[10], where it was stated that witnesses maybe called to prove that his general reputation is such that they would not believe him upon his oath. Such evidence can be given and the practice is ancient and undoubted.
After carefully analyzing section 54 and various other sections that have been mentioned it shall be noted that bad character evidence despite having a limited purpose and scope in trial is still quite relevant. Importance may be given to the fact that it is weak form of evidence when it works standalone but it does not take away the fact that when it is coupled with hard evidence to support one's case it becomes a key element.

It has been pointed out that section 54 is not an overriding section and therefore several other provisions have been stated which allow evidence of bad character. Bad character evidence used to nullify the truthfulness of a witness can also prove effective in a case that depends heavily on witness testimonies as the principle of �innocent until proven guilty' is followed and the burden of proof always lies on the prosecution to prove his case beyond a reasonable doubt.

The restrictions on bad character evidence are only during the trial stage and not during the investigative stage which is something that the legislators must look at. It goes without saying that often the most vulnerable people in the society are targeted and people with bad character or previous convictions is presumed to be a suspect.

Proper rules need to be set out at the investigative stage as well to uphold the fundamental rights of a person with previous convictions from being made a scapegoat and subsequently being deprived of his human rights. An Additional Sessions Judge, Justice Vinod Yadav recently granted bail to an accused in Delhi Riots case where the contention of the police was that the accused should not be given bail because he was of a bad character. He strongly held that an accused cannot languish in jail just because of that tag.

  1. Bhagwan Swarup Lal Bishan Lal and others Vs The State of Maharashtra AIR 1965 SC 682 : (1964) 2 SCR 378 : (1965) 1 CriLJ SC 608
  2. 2006 (89) DRJ40
  3. (1903) 5 Bom LR 1034
  4. Emperor v. Allomiya, (1903) 5 Bom LR 805
  5. AIR 1968 Bom 400
  6. Section 14 talks about facts showing existence of state of mind, or of body or bodily feeling.
  7. Section 15 talks about facts bearing on question whether act was accidental or intentional.
  8. AIR 1957 SC 199
  9. 1954 SCR 475
  10. (1867) LR 1 CCR 70

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