NEW DELHI: The Union Home Ministry has directed police heads of the states and union territories to put an end to the abuse of the criminal justice system with respect to the testimonies of 'panchas' (witnesses) in recording a 'panchnama' (testimony document).
In its directive, the ministry has said: "Police officers using the same set of witnesses in 'panchnamas', even after transfer elsewhere, should be identified."
It further said that the police heads should ensure that "no person becomes witness in 'panchnamas' more than once. This may be ensured by recording the Aadhar number of the witnesses. This should ensure genuine witnesses and remove loopholes in the system."
Under the provisions governing the system, witnesses should be respectable and unbiased members of a particular locality.
'Panchnama' is a record of what the witnesses see at the exact location of the crime. The courts rely on the 'panchnama' to check the veracity and authenticity of the action taken by police officers. In criminal cases, it is used to corroborate substantive evidence.
The 'panchanama' lists the articles which are found at a particular place and a particular time and, thus it has corroborative value. There are several kinds of 'panchnamas', such as the spot, memorandum, seizure, inquest and arrest 'panchnamas'.
The panchanama can also be found in cases under the purview of the Prevention of Food Adulteration Act and the Essential Commodities Act.
This procedure has been widely misused by several police officers, where the same set of people were made witnesses in multiple cases even though they were not present at the spot.
The misuse has been was flagged by several courts and during various meetings between officials of the Law and Home Affairs Ministries.
Senior advocate Dhruva Bhagat told IANS that "as per the statutes of the Code of Criminal Procedure 1973, the investigating officer in any case, or FIR, is required to take testimonies of public witnesses during the time of the seizure of any illegal article which is alleged to have been in possession of any accused person."
Bhagat explained that, in general, the investigating officer fails to proceed in this manner, citing, instead, only police officers as recovery witnesses.
"If it all any public witnesses were named as witnesses to the recovery made by the investigating officer, the witness would be the same in every case as cited by the investigating officer," said the senior lawyer elaborating on the malpractices.
In a bid to curb such misuse, the Centre has now issued directives to the police to provide the proper name and other "details of such witness such as his or her Aadhar Card number, so that the practice of citing the same witness in almost every case for the purpose of recovery is eliminated and a fair and reasonable investigation is carried out by the police officer".
In the Yakub Abdul Razak Memon case, one of the grounds challenging conviction was that the seizures made were not done with proper procedure and the 'panchnamas' were not in accordance with the procedure as laid down in Section 27A of the Indian Evidence Act, 1872.
In this case, the Supreme Court had highlighted the importance of the 'panchnama', observing that the "Panchnama is a document having legal bearings which records evidence and findings that an officer makes at the scene of an offence/crime. However, it is not only the recordings of the scene of crime but also of anywhere else which may be related to the crime/offence and from where incriminating evidence is likely to be collected.
"The document so prepared needs to be signed by the investigating officer who prepares the same and at least by two independent and impartial witnesses called 'Panchas' as also by the concerned party," it said.
"The witnesses are required to be not only impartial but also 'respectable'. 'Respectable' here would mean a person who is not disreputed. One should also check if the witnesses are in their senses at the time of panchnama proceedings. Only majors are to be taken as witnesses as minors witness my not withstand the legal scrutiny," it added.