Who is an Approver?

Approver has not been defined in the Criminal Procedure Code, 1973 or even in the Indian Evidence Act, 1872. Black law dictionary defines ‘approver’ as “an accomplice in crime who accuses others of the same offense, and is admitted as a witness at the discretion of the court to give evidence against his companions in guilt. This definition has been accepted by courts.

In Myers v. People 26 Ill.175., approver has been defined as ‘one who confesses himself guilty of felony and accuses others of the same crime to save himself  from punishment.’

Accomplice, as defined in Black Law Dictionary, is “a person who knowingly, voluntarily, and with common intent with the principal offender unites in the commission of a crime’ One who is in some way concerned or associated in commission of crime; partaker of guilt; one who aids or assists, or is an accessory.”

That means every approver is an accomplice but it need not be vice-versa.

Related Provisions of the Indian Evidence Act: Section 133 of the Evidence Act reads—“ Accomplice.—An accomplice shall be a competent witness against an accused person; and a conviction is not illegal merely because it proceeds upon the uncorroborated testimony of an accomplice.”  While illustration (b) of section 114 of the same act reads –“The Court may presume that an accomplice is unworthy of credit, unless he is corroborated in material particulars”

Can an approver be a competent witness? Does approver’s testimony have to be corroborated?  

Suresh Chandra Bahri vs State Of Bihar AIR 1994 SC 2420, the supreme court made the following observations:

The evidence of an approver does not differ from the evidence of any other witness except that his evidence is looked upon with great suspicion. Consequently, in the event, the suspicion which is attached to the evidence of an accomplice is not removed his evidence could not be acted upon unless corroborated in material particulars. But where the suspicion is removed and the evidence of an approver is found to be trustworthy and acceptable then that evidence may be acted upon even without corroboration and the conviction may be founded on such a witness.

Here in this connection, it would be appropriate to make reference to the provisions of Section 133 of the Evidence Act which deal with the testimony of an accomplice. It contemplates that an accomplice shall be a competent witness against an accused person: and a conviction is not illegal merely because it proceeds upon the uncorroborated testimony of an accomplice. The first part envisages that an accomplice, in other words, a guilty companion in crime, shall be a competent witness while the second part states that conviction is not illegal merely because it is based on the uncorroborated testimony of an accomplice.

But if we read Section 133 of the Evidence Act with illustration (b) of Section 114 of the Evidence Act it may lead to certain amount of confusion and misunderstanding as to the real and true intention of the Legislature because quite contrary to what is contained in Section 133 illustration (b) to Section 114 of the Evidence Act lays down ” that an accomplice is unworthy of credit, unless he is corroborated in material particulars”. A combined reading of the two provisions that is Section 133 and illustration (b) of Section 114 of Evidence Act go to show that it was considered necessary to place the law of accomplice evidence on a better footing by stating in unambiguous terms that according to Section 133a conviction is “not illegal or in other words not unlawful” merely because it is founded on the uncorroborated testimony of an accomplice while accepting that an accomplice is a competent witness. But at the same tune the Legislature intended to invite attention to the illustration (b) of Section 114 of the Evidence Act with a view to emphasise that the rule contained therein as well as in Section 133 are parts of one and the same object and neither can be ignored in the exercise of judicial discretion except in cases of very exceptional nature.

However, the difficulty in understanding the combined effect of the aforementioned two provisions arises largely due to their placement at two different places of the same Act. It may be noticed that illustration (b) attached to Section 114 is placed in chapter VII of Evidence Act while Section 133 is inserted in chapter IX of the Act. The better course was to insert the illustration (b) to Section 114 as an explanation or in any case as a proviso to Section 133 of the Act instead of their insertion at two different places and that too in different chapters of Evidence Act. In any case, since an approver is guilty companion in crime and. therefore, illustration (b) to Section 114provides a rule of caution to which the Courts should have regard.

It is now well settled by a long series of decisions that except in circumstances of special nature it is the duty of the Court to raise the presumption in Section 114 illustration (b) and the Legislature requires that the Courts should make the natural presumption in that Section as would be clear from the decisions which we shall discuss hereinafter.

In Bhiva Doulu Patil vs State Of Maharashtra 1963 AIR 599, the Supreme Court took the view that the combined effect of Sections 133 and illustration (b) of Section 114 may be stated as follows : According to the former, which is a rule of law, an accomplice is competent to give evidence and according to the latter which is a rule of practice it is almost always unsafe to convict upon his testimony alone. Therefore, though the conviction of an accused on the testimony of an accomplice cannot be said to be illegal yet the Courts will as a matter of practice, not accept the evidence of such a witness without corroboration in material particulars. There should be corroboration of the approver in material particulars and qua each accused.

In Ram Narayan v. State of Rajasthan, the following was observed by the Supreme Court of India:

Section 133 expressly provides that an accomplice is a competent witness and the conviction is not illegal merely because it proceeds on the uncorroborated testimony of an accomplice. In other words, this section renders admissible such uncorroborated testimony. But this section has to be read along with illustration (b) to Section 114. The latter section empowers the court to presume the existence of certain facts and the illustrations elucidate what the court may presume and make clear by means of examples as to what facts the court shall have regard in considering whether or not the maxims illustrated apply to given case before it.

Illustration (b) in express terms says that an accomplice is unworthy of credit unless he is corroborated in material particulars. The statute permits the conviction of an accused person on the basis of the uncorroborated testimony of an accomplice but the rule of prudence embodied in illustration (b) of Section 114 strikes a note of warning cautioning the court that an accomplice does not generally deserve to be believed unless corroborated in material particulars. In other words, the rule is that the necessity of corroboration as a matter of prudence except when it is safe to dispense with such corroboration must be clearly present to the mind of the Judge.

In Ravinder Singh v. State of Haryana 1975 AIR 856, the Apex court made the following observation:

An approver is a most unworthy friend, if at all, and he, having bargained for his immunity, must prove his worthiness for credibility in Court. This test is fulfilled, firstly, if the story he relates involves him in the crime and appears intrinsically to be a natural and probable catalogue of events that had taken place. The story if given of minute details according with reality is likely to save it from being rejected brevi manu. Secondly, once that hurdle is crossed, the story given by an approver so far as the accused on trial is concerned, must implicate him in such a manner as to give rise to a conclusion of guilt beyond reasonable doubt. In a rare case, taking into consideration all the factors, circumstances and situations governing a particular case, conviction based on the uncorroborated evidence of an approver confidently held to be true and reliable by the Court may be permissible. Ordinarily. However, an approver’s statement has to be corroborated in material particulars bridging closely the distance between the crime and the criminal. Certain clinching features of involvement disclosed by an approver appertaining directly to an accused, if reliable, by the touchstone of other independent credible evidence, would give the needed assurance for acceptance on his testimony on which a conviction may be based.

Thus it is clear that a definite rule has been crystallized to the effect that though a conviction can be based on uncorroborated evidence of an accomplice but as a rule of prudence, it is unsafe to place reliance on the uncorroborated testimony of an approver as required by illustration (b) of Section 114of the Evidence Act.

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