One basic requirement of a fair trial in criminal jurisprudence is to give precise information to the accused as to the accusation against him. This is vitally important to the accused in the preparation of his defence. In all trials under the Criminal Procedure Code the accused is informed of the accusation in the beginning itself. In case of serious offences the Code requires that the accusations are to be formulated and reduced to writing with great precision & clarity. This “charge” is then to be read and explained to the accused person1.
Charge serves the purpose of notice or intimation to the accused, drawn up according to specific language of law, giving clear and unambiguous or precise notice of the nature of accusation that the accused is called upon to meet in the course of trial2.
Relevant Legal Provisions of Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC)
- Section 211 & Section 212 specifies about Contents of Charge and mentioning of particulars as to time and place of the alleged offence in the charge.
This rule is to an extent relaxed in a case of criminal breach of trust or of dishonest misappropriation. When the accused is charged with criminal breach of trust or dishonest misappropriation of money or other movable property, it shall be sufficient to specify the gross sum or, as the case may be, describe the movable property in respect of which the offence is alleged to have been committed, and the dates between which the offence is alleged to have been committed, without specifying particular items or exact dates. It is obvious that the relaxation given by the above rule is applicable only in case of criminal breach of trust or dishonest misappropriation and not in case of any other offence like theft, falsification of accounts under Section 477-A of the IPC, cheating etc.
This rule is intended to cover cases of persons who showed a deficiency in the accounts with which they were entrusted but who could not be shown to have misappropriated this or that specific sum3.
- Section 213 talks about; when manner of committing offence must be stated:
When the nature of the case is such that the particulars mentioned in sections 211 and 212 do not give the accused sufficient notice of the matter with which he is charged, the charge shall also contain such particulars of the manner is which the alleged offence was committed as will be sufficient for that purpose.
- Section 214 gives a rule for interpreting the words used in the charge: It provides that in every charge words used in describing an offence shall be deemed to have been used in the sense attached to them respectively by the law under which such offence is punishable.
Basic Procedure regarding charge & its trial
The initial requirement of a fair trial in criminal cases is a precise statement of the accusation. The code seeks to secure this requirement, first, by laying down in Sections 211 to 214 of CrPC as to what a charge should contain; next, stipulating in Section 218 of CrPC that for every distinct offence there should be a separate charge; and lastly, by laying down in the same section that each charge should be tried separately, so that what is sought to be achieved by the first two rules is not nullified by a joinder of numerous & unconnected charges4.
Section 218 reads as Separate charges for distinct offences
The object of section 218 is to save the accused from being embarrassed in his defence if distinct offences are lumped together in one charge or in separate charges & are tried together5. Another reason is that the mind of the court might be prejudiced against the prisoner if he were tried in one trial upon different charges resting on different evidence. It might be difficult for the court trying him on one of the charges not to be influenced by the evidence against him on the other charges. The strict observance of Section 218(1) may lead to multiplicity of trials, therefore exceptions, in suitable cases, have been provided by Section 218(2) in Sections 219,220,221 & 223. The effects of non-compliance with provisions regarding charge would be considered later. It would however be useful to allude to the decision of the Supreme Court in context of non-compliance with Section 218. In every case, in which a departure from the requirements of Section 218 has occurred, the question before the courts is, whether the omission to frame the required charge has or has not in fact occasioned a failure of justice by prejudicing the accused in his defence, & whether he has thus been deprived of a fair trial6.
Power of Court to order separate trial in cases where joinder of charges or of offenders is permissible
The basic rule regarding charge is that for every distinct offence there shall be a separate charge & for every such charge there shall be separate trial. The only exceptions recognized are contained in Sections 219,220,221 & 223 of CrPC. Therefore separate trial is the rule and the joint trial is an exception. The sections containing the exceptions are only enabling provisions. A court has got the discretion to order a separate trial even though the case is covered by one of the exceptions enabling a joint trial7. A joint trial of a very large number of charges is very much to be deprecated even though it is not prohibited by law. A separate trial is always desirable whenever there is risk of prejudice to the accused in a joint trial. The Supreme Court has taken the view that it is the option of the court whether to resort to Section 219,220 & 223 of the Code or whether to act as laid down in Section 218 and that the accused has no right to claim joinder of charges or of offenders8.
Applicability of provisions relating to joinder of charges to cases where no charge is framed
As will be seen later, in all summons cases though it is necessary to state to the accused the particulars of the offence of which he is charged, it is not necessary to frame a formal charge. In such cases a question may arise whether the provisions relating to joinder of charges & of offenders are applicable to such proceedings. The Code does not make any express provision in this regard. However the courts have taken the view that these provisions are equally applicable in summons cases also9.
Amendment/Alteration of charge
According to Section 216 (1) of CrPC, any court may alter or add to any charge at any time before judgment is pronounced. The section invests a comprehensive power to remedy the defects in the framing or non-framing of a charge, whether discovered at the initial stage of the trial or at any subsequent stage prior to the judgment.
The code gives ample power to the courts to alter or amend a charge whether by the trial court or by the Appellate Court provided that the accused has not to face a charge for a new offence or is not prejudiced either by keeping him in the dark about that charge or in not giving a full opportunity of meeting it & putting forward any defence open to him, on the charge finally preferred against him10. The court has a very wide power to alter the charge; however, the court is to act judiciously and to exercise the discretion wisely. It should not alter the charge to the prejudice of the accused person11.
Withdrawal of remaining charges on conviction on one of several charges
Section 224 of CrPC states that when a charge containing more heads than one is framed against the same person, and when a conviction has been had on one or more of them, the complainant, or the officer conducting the prosecution, may, with the consent, of the Court, withdraw the remaining charge or charges, or the Court of its own accord may stay the inquiry into, or trial of, such charge or charges and such withdrawal shall have the effect of an acquittal on such charge or charges, unless the conviction be set aside, in which case the said Court (subject to the order of the Court setting aside the conviction) may proceed with the inquiry into, or trial of, the charge or charges so withdrawn. The section is applicable where the accused in convicted of one of several distinct charges before the other charges are tried. It is necessary that the several charges made must be in respect of distinct offences and the section will not apply where the several charges are made under Sections 220(3), 220(4), or Section 221.
Effects of omission to frame, or absence of, or error in charge
Under Section 215 & 464 of CrPC object is to prevent failure of justice where there has been only technical breach of rules not going to the root of the case as such. The two sections read together lay down that whatever the irregularity in framing of a charge, it is not fatal unless there is prejudiced caused to the accused12. The object of the section is to prevent failure of justice where there is some breach of the rules in the formulation of the charge. However, the section also makes it clear that insignificant irregularities in stating the particulars of the offence will not affect the trial or its outcome. In order to decide whether the error or omission has resulted in a failure of justice the court should have the regards to the manner in which the accused conducted his defence & to the nature of the objection.
The object of the charge is to give an accused notice of the matter he is charged with. If the necessary information is conveyed to him and no prejudice is caused to him because of the charges, the accused cannot succeed by merely showing that the charges framed were defective. Nor could a conviction recorded on charged under wrong provisions be reversed if the accused was informed of the details of the offences committed and thus no prejudice was caused to him13. The mere omission to frame a charge or a mere defect in the charge is no ground for setting aside a conviction. Procedural laws are designed to subserve the ends of justice & not to frustrate them by mere technicalities.
In a criminal trial the charge is the foundation of the accusation & every care must be taken to see that it is not only properly framed but evidence is only tampered with respect to matters put in the charge & not the other matters14.
In framing a charge during a criminal trial, instituted upon a police report, the court is required to confine its attention to documents referred to under Section 17315.
The judge needs to be only convinced that there is a prime facie case, where there is no necessity to adduce reasons for framing charges. However, the magistrate is required to write an order showing reasons if he decides to discharge the accused16.
The sections dealing with charge do not mention who is to frame the charge. The provisions dealing with different types of trials however provide that it is always for the court to frame the charge. The court may alter/ add to any charge at any time before the judgment is pronounced.
But if a person has been charged, the court cannot drop it17. He has either to be convicted or acquitted18. All this has an important bearing on the administration of justice.