The normal principle in a case based on circumstantial evidence is that the circumstances from which an inference of guilt is sought to be drawn must be cogently and firmly established; that those circumstances should be of a definite tendency unerringly pointing towards the guilt of the accused; that the circumstances taken cumulatively should form a chain so complete that there is no escape from the conclusion that within all human probability the crime was committed by the accused and they should be incapable of explanation on any hypothesis other than that of the guilt of the accused and inconsistent with his innocence.[1]

If an offence takes place inside the privacy of a house and in such circumstances where the assailants have all the opportunity to plan and commit the offence at the time and in circumstances of their choice, it will be extremely difficult for the prosecution to lead evidence to establish the guilt of the accused if the strict principle of circumstantial evidence, as noticed above, is insisted upon by the Courts. A Judge does not preside over a criminal trial merely to see that no innocent man is punished. A Judge also presides to see that a guilty man does not escape. Both are public duties.[2]

The law does not enjoin a duty on the prosecution to lead evidence of such character which is almost impossible to be led or at any rate extremely difficult to be led. The duty on the prosecution is to lead such evidence which it is capable of leading, having regard to the facts and circumstances of the case.  Section 106 of the Evidence Act says that when any fact is especially within the knowledge of any person, the burden of proving that fact is upon him.

Illustration (b) appended to section 106 of the Evidence act throws some light on the content and scope of this provision and it reads: “A is charged with traveling on a railway without ticket. The burden of proving that he had a ticket is on him.”

Where an offence like murder is committed in secrecy inside a house, the initial burden to establish the case would undoubtedly be upon the prosecution, but the nature and amount of evidence to be led by it to establish the charge cannot be of the same degree as is required in other cases of circumstantial evidence. The burden would be of a comparatively lighter character. In view of Section 106 of the Evidence Act there will be a corresponding burden on the inmates of the house to give a cogent explanation as to how the crime was committed. The inmates of the house cannot get away by simply keeping quiet and offering no explanation on the supposed premise that the burden to establish its case lies entirely upon the prosecution and there is no duty at all on an accused to offer any explanation.

The fundamental rule relating to proof in all criminal or quasi-criminal proceedings is that the onus is on the prosecution, where there is no statutory provision to the contrary. But in appreciating its scope and the nature of the onus cast by it, due regard must be given to other kindred principles, no less fundamental, of universal application. The Supreme court of India in  Collector of Customs, Madras & Ors. v. D. Bhoormull[3] said- “One of them is that the prosecution or the Department is not required to prove its case with mathematical precision to a demonstrable degree; for, in all human affairs absolute certainty is a myth, and as Prof. Brett felicitously puts it – ‘‘all exactness is a fake“. El Dorado of absolute proof being unattainable, the law, accepts for it, probability as a working substitute in this work-a-day world. The law does not require the prosecution to prove the impossible. All that it requires is the establishment of such a degree of probability that a prudent man may, on its basis, believe in the existence of the fact in issue.” In other words- legal proof is not necessarily perfect proof; often it is nothing more than a prudent man’s estimate as to the probabilities of the case. This principle has been followed by the Apex Court in Balram Prasad Agrawal v. State of Bihar & Ors[4]

In a case based on circumstantial evidence where no eye- witness account is available, there is another principle of law which must be kept in mind. The principle is that when an incriminating circumstance is put to the accused and the said accused either offers no explanation or offers an explanation which is found to be untrue, then the same becomes an additional link in the chain of circumstances to make it complete.[5]

The Supreme Court laid a rule in this regard in  State of West Bengal v. Mir Mohammad Omar & Ors[6]— the pristine rule that the burden of proof is on the prosecution to prove the guilt of the accused should not be taken as a fossilised doctrine as though it admits no process of intelligent reasoning. The doctrine of presumption is not alien to the above rule, nor would it impair the temper of the rule. On the other hand, if the traditional rule relating to burden of proof of the prosecution is allowed to be wrapped in pedantic coverage, the offenders in serious offences would be the major beneficiaries and the society would be the casualty.

[1] Trimukh Maroti Kirkan vs State Of Maharashtra, (2006) 10 SCC 681.

[2] Stirland v. Director of Public Prosecution, 1944 AC (PC) 315.

[3] AIR 1974 SC 859.

[4] AIR 1997 SC 1830.

[5] State of Tamil Nadu v. Rajendran, (1999) 8 SCC 679.

[6] (2000) 8 SCC 382.

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