No legislative or judicially laid down guidelines to assist trial court in meting out just punishment

The social consequences of a culpable act and its impact on other people can be a relevant consideration for heavier punishment, of course, within the limits of law, the Supreme Court has observed while reducing from five to three years the jail term awarded to Soman, accused of selling spurious liquor that killed a person in Kerala’s Kollam district.

The prosecution case was that in October 2000, 31 people died and more than 500 developed serious sicknesses, six of whom lost their vision completely, after consuming spurious liquor — contaminated with methyl alcohol — at different places in the district.

All cases, registered in various police stations, were consolidated into a single case. On the basis of police investigations, the accused were put on trial, having been classified into three groups: manufacturers; distributors and suppliers; and retail vendors.

The trial court sentenced Soman, who was in the third category, to rigorous imprisonment for two years.

Sentence enhanced

In its appeal in the Kerala High Court, the State questioned the acquittal of some of the accused and demanded that the sentence handed to those convicted by the trial court be enhanced. The High Court dismissed the appeals of the accused. But it enhanced Soman’s sentence to five years, on the sole ground that the spirit he had sold led to the death of a person. And this judgment, Soman contested in the Supreme Court.

Writing the judgment, Justice Aftab Alam said: “Giving punishment to the wrongdoer is at the heart of the criminal justice delivery, but in our country, it is the weakest part of the administration of criminal justice. There are no legislative or judicially laid down guidelines to assist the trial court in meting out the just punishment to the accused… It is necessary to assess the seriousness of an offence in order to determine the commensurate punishment. The seriousness of an offence depends, apart from other things, upon its harmfulness. The question is whether the consequences of the offence can be taken as the measure for determining its harmfulness? Quite apart from the seriousness of the offence, can its consequences be a legitimate aggravating [as opposed to mitigating] factor while awarding a sentence. Thus, to understand the relevance of consequences of criminal conduct from a sentencing standpoint, one must examine whether such consequences enhanced the harmfulness of the offence and whether they are an aggravating factor that needs to be taken into account by the courts while deciding on the sentence.”

The two-judge Bench, which included Justice Ranjana Desai, pointed out that the Supreme Court, on an appeal from accused no. 25 in the case, accepted his plea to reduce his sentence from life term to 10- year imprisonment. “We feel that it will not be fair not to give the same concession to the appellant [accused 41]…”

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