SC: Review petition of a death convict to be heard in an open court


Court :
Supreme Court of India

Brief :
The Supreme Court Constitution bench comprising of Justices R.M. Lodha, Jagdish Singh Khehar, A.K. Sikri, Rohinton Fali Nariman and Chelameswar, in a majority verdict, has ruled that the review petition of a death convict to be heard in an open court by at least a three-judge bench and allowed all death row convicts, whose review pleas have already been decided, to approach it within a month for re-opening of their cases.

Citation :
WRIT PETITION (CRIMINAL) NO.77 OF 2014 Mohd. Arif @ Ashfaq … Petitioner Versus The Registrar, Supreme Court of India & Others … Respondents WITH WRIT PETITION (CRIMINAL) NO.137 OF 2010 C. Muniappan & Others … Petitioners Versus The Registrar, Supreme Court of India … Respondent WITH WRIT PETITION (CRIMINAL) NO.52 OF 2011 B.A. Umesh … Petitioner Registrar, Versus Supreme Court of India … Respondent WITH WRIT PETITION (CRIMINAL) NO.39 OF 2013 Sundar @ Sundarrajan … Petitioner Versus State by Inspector of Police & Others … Respondents WITH WRIT PETITION (CRIMINAL) NO.108 OF 2014 Yakub Abdul Razak Memon … Petitioner Versus Registrar, Supreme Court of India & Others … Respondents AND WRIT PETITION (CRIMINAL) NO.117 OF 2014 Sonu Sardar … Petitioner Versus Union of India & Others … Respondents

IN THE SUPREME COURT OF INDIA

CRIMINAL ORIGINAL JURISDICTION

WRIT PETITION (CRIMINAL) NO.77 OF 2014

Mohd. Arif @ Ashfaq … Petitioner 

Versus

The Registrar,

Supreme Court of India & Others … Respondents

WITH

WRIT PETITION (CRIMINAL) NO.137 OF 2010

C. Muniappan & Others … Petitioners 

Versus

The Registrar,

Supreme Court of India … Respondent

WITH

WRIT PETITION (CRIMINAL) NO.52 OF 2011

B.A. Umesh  … Petitioner 

Registrar,

Versus

Reportable

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Supreme Court of India … Respondent

WITH

WRIT PETITION (CRIMINAL) NO.39 OF 2013

Sundar @ Sundarrajan … Petitioner 

Versus

State by Inspector of Police & Others …

Respondents

WITH

WRIT PETITION (CRIMINAL) NO.108 OF 2014

Yakub Abdul Razak Memon … Petitioner 

Versus

Registrar,

Supreme Court of India & Others … Respondents

AND

WRIT PETITION (CRIMINAL) NO.117 OF 2014

Sonu Sardar  … Petitioner 

Versus

Union of India & Others … Respondents

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Chelameswar, J.

J U D G M E N T

1. I have had the privilege of reading the draft judgment 

prepared by my esteemed brother Rohinton Fali Nariman, J. 

With  utmost  respect,  I  am unable to agree with the view 

taken by him that a review petition filed by a convict whose 

death  penalty  is  affirmed by this  Court  is  required to be 

heard in open Court  but  cannot  be decided by circulation. 

The background facts and the submissions are elaborately 

mentioned  by  my  learned  brother.   I  do  not  propose  to 

repeat them. 

2. Extinguishment  of  life of  a subject by the State as a 

punishment for an offence is still  sanctioned by law in this 

country.  Article 21 of the Constitution itself recognizes the 

authority of  the State to deprive a person of  his life.   No 

doubt,  such  authority  is  circumscribed  by  many 

constitutional limitations. Article 21 mandates that a person 

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cannot be deprived of his life except according to procedure 

established by law.  Whether Article 21 is the sole repository 

of the constitutional guarantee against the deprivation of life 

and whether it is sufficient for the State to merely prescribe 

a procedure for the deprivation of life by a law, or whether 

such  a  law  is  required  to  comply  with  certain  other 

constitutional  requirements are questions which have been 

the  subject  matter  of  debate  by  this  Court  in  various 

decisions starting from A.K. Gopalan v. State of Madras, 

AIR  1950  SC  27.    The  history  of  such  debate  and  the 

historical  background  in  which  such  constitutional 

protections are felt  necessary have been very elaborately 

discussed  by  my  learned  brother.    Therefore,  I  do  not 

propose to deal with the said aspect of the matter.

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3. Section 53

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 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860 (hereinafter 

referred  to  as  “IPC”)  prescribes  various  punishments  to 

which offenders are liable under the provisions of  the IPC. 

Death is one of the punishments so prescribed. Provisions of 

the IPC prescribe death penalty for various offences as one 

of  the  alternative  punishments  for  these  offences

example, Section 302 prescribes death or imprisonment for 

life as alternative punishments  for  a person who commits 

murder.   Similarly, Section 121 prescribes death penalty as 

one  of  the  alternatives  for  an  offence  of  waging  or 

attempting to wage or abetting to waging of war against the 

Government of India. 

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  53. Punishments- The punishments in which offenders are liable under the provisions of this

Code are-

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First - Death;

Secondly – Imprisonment for life;

Thirdly – [Omitted by Act 17 of 1949, sec. 2 (wef 6.4.1949)]

Fourthly – Imprisonment, which is of two descriptions, namely -  

(1)  Rigorous, that is, with hard labour;

(2)  Simple;

Fifthly -  Forfeiture of property;

Sixthly-  Fine.

  The offences for which death is one of the alternative punishments under IPC are under Sections

121, 132, 194, 302, 305, 307(3), 364A and 376A, 376E and 396.

2

.   For 

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4. Apart  from  the  Penal  Code,  some  other  special 

enactments also create offences for which death penalty is 

one  of  the  punishments.   Unless,  a  special  procedure  is 

prescribed  by  such  special  law,  all  persons  accused  of 

offences  are  tried  in  accordance  with  the  procedure 

prescribed  under  the  Code  of  Criminal  Procedure,  1973 

(hereinafter referred to as “the CrPC”).   Under the scheme 

of the CrPC,  only the High Court and the Court of Sessions 

are the courts  authorized to  award punishment  of  death. 

The  other  subordinate  courts  such  as  Chief  Judicial 

Magistrates  and  Magistrates  are  expressly  debarred  to 

award death penalty.    Sections 28

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 and 29

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 of  the CrPC 

prescribe the punishment  which the various courts  in the 

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 28. Sentences which High Courts and Sessions Judges may pass:

(1) A High Court may pass any sentence authorised by law 

(2) A Sessions Judge or Additional Sessions Judge may pass any sentence authorised by law; but

any sentence of death passed by any such Judge shall be subject to confirmation by the High Court 

(3) An Assistant Sessions Judge may pass any sentence authorised by law except a sentence of

death or of imprisonment for life or of imprisonment for a term exceeding ten years

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 29. Sentences which Magistrates may pass

(1) The Court of a Chief Judicial Magistrate may pass any sentence authorised by law except a 

sentence of death or of imprisonment for life or of imprisonment for a term exceeding seven years

(2) The Court of a Magistrate of the first class may pass a sentence of imprisonment for a term not 

exceeding three years, or of fine not exceeding five thousand rupees, or both

(3) The Court of a Magistrate of the second class may pass a sentence of imprisonment for a term 

not exceeding one year, or of fine not exceeding one thousand rupees, or of both

(4) The Court of a Chief Metropolitan Magistrate shall have the powers of the Court of a Chief 

Judicial Magistrate and that of a Metropolitan Magistrate, the powers of the Court of a Magistrate of the

first class

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hierarchy of  the criminal  justice administration system can 

pass.

5. Some  special  enactments  like  the  Terrorist  and 

Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act, 1987, Narcotic Drugs 

and  Psychotropic  Substances  Act,  1985,  the  Unlawful 

Activities Prevention Act, 1967 etc. also create offences for 

which death penalty is one of  the alternative punishments 

prescribed.    Though some of  the offences are triable by 

special  courts  constituted under  these Acts,  generally the 

CrPC  is  made  applicable  to  the  proceedings  before  the 

special courts and such special courts are generally manned 

by persons who are either Sessions Judges or Addl. Sessions 

Judges.

6. Legislature, as a matter of policy, entrusted the trial of 

serious  offences  for  which  death  penalty  is  one  of  the 

possible penalties, to relatively more experienced members 

of the subordinate judiciary.

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7. Even though Sessions Courts are authorized to award 

punishment of death in an appropriate case, the authority of 

the Sessions Court is further subjected to two limitations:-

(i) Under sub-section (3) of Section 354 of  the CrPC,  the 

judgment  by  which  the  punishment  of  death  is 

awarded,  is required to give special  reasons for  such 

sentence .

354. Language and contents of judgment.— (1) Except as

otherwise  expressly  provided  by  this  Code,  every  judgment

referred to in section 353,— 

*********          *******           ********              **********

(3) When the conviction is for an offence punishable with death 

or, in the alternative, with imprisonment for life or imprisonment

for a term of years, the judgment shall state the reasons for the

sentence awarded,  and,  in the case of  sentence of  death, the

special reasons for such sentence.

*********** ********* ************ ************* 

(ii) The second limitation is contained in chapter XXVIII of 

the CrPC.    Section 366(1)  thereof  mandates  that  a 

Court  of  Session  passing  a  sentence  of  death  shall 

submit  the  proceedings  to  the  High  Court  and  the 

sentence so imposed by the Sessions Court shall not be 

executed  unless  the  High  Court  confirms  the 

punishment awarded.

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8. Section 367 of  the CrPC authorises the High Court  to 

make a further  enquiry into the matter  or  take additional 

evidence.  Under Section 368 of the CrPC, the High Court is 

precluded  from confirming  the  sentence  until  the  period 

allowed  for  preferring  an  appeal  (by  the  accused)  has 

expired or if an appeal is already presented within the period 

of  limitation  prescribed  under  law,  until  such  appeal  is 

disposed of.   In other words, before confirming the award of 

death sentence,  the High Court is required to examine the 

correctness  of  the  finding  of  the  guilt  of  the  accused 

recorded by the Sessions Court,  if  the accused chooses to 

challenge the correctness of the finding of the guilt by the 

Sessions Court.    In theory,  the role of  the High Court  in 

confirming or  declining to  confirm the  sentence  of  death 

awarded by the Sessions Court is limited to the examination 

of  the correctness or the appropriateness of  the sentence. 

The correctness and legality of the finding of guilt recorded 

by the Sessions Court,  is required to be examined in the 

appeal,  if  preferred against  such  finding by  the accused. 

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Hence,  the requirement  under  Section 368 is to await  the 

decision in the appeal preferred by the accused against the 

finding of guilt.   

9. However,  in practice when a reference is made under 

Section  366,  the  High  Court  invariably  examines  the 

correctness  of  the  finding  of  the  guilt  recorded  by  the 

Sessions Court. In fact such a duty is mandated in Subbaiah 

Ambalam v. State of Tamil Nadu, AIR 1977 SC 2046– 

”It is well  settled that in a Reference under S.374 of  the

Code of Criminal Procedure for confirming death sentence,

the High Court has to consider the evidence afresh and to

arrive at its independent finding with regard to the guilt of

the accused.”

and in  Surjit  Singh & Others v. The State of  Punjab, 

Criminal Appeal No.77 of 1968 decided by this Court on 15

October, 1968–

“It  is clear  from a perusal  of  these provisions that  on a

reference under s.374, Criminal Procedure Code, the entire

case is before the High Court.  In hearing such a reference

the High Court  has to satisfy itself  as to whether a case

beyond a reasonable doubt has been made out against the

accused persons for the infliction of the penalty of death.

In other words,  in hearing the reference,  it is the duty of

the High Court  to reappraise and to reassess the entire

evidence and to come to an independent conclusion as to

the  guilt  or  innocence  of  each  of  the  accused  persons

mentioned in the reference.”

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10. Section  369  CrPC  further  stipulates  that  every  case 

referred under Section 366 to the High Court shall be heard 

and decided by at least two judges of the High Court, if that 

High Court consists of two or more judges.

11. In a case where the penalty of  death is confirmed by 

the High Court in accordance with the CrPC, the decision is 

final except for two categories of cases.   Under Article 134

a right of  appeal  to this Court is created in criminal  cases 

where  the  High  Court  on  appeal  reverses  an  order  of 

acquittal  of  an accused person  recorded by  the  Sessions 

Court and sentences him to death or where the High Court 

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 134. Appellate jurisdiction of Supreme Court in regard to criminal matters.-

(1) An appeal  shall  lie to the Supreme Court  from any judgment,  final  order  or sentence in a

criminal proceeding of a High Court in the territory of India if the High Court-

(a) has on appeal reversed an order of acquittal of an accused person and sentenced him to death;

or

(b) has withdrawn for trial before itself any case from any court subordinate to its authority and

has in such trial convicted the accused person and sentenced him to death; or

(c) certifies under article 134A that the case is a fit one for appeal to the Supreme Court:

Provided that an appeal under sub-clause (c) shall lie subject to such provisions as may be made in

that  behalf  under  clause (1) of article 145 and to such conditions as the High Court  may establish or 

require.

(2) Parliament may by law confer on the Supreme Court any further powers to entertain and hear 

appeals from any judgment, final order or sentence in a criminal proceeding of a High Court in the territory

of India subject to such conditions and limitations as may be specified in such law.

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withdraws for trial  before itself  any case pending before a 

court subordinate to it and convicts the accused person and 

awards death sentence to such an accused person.   I may 

also  state  that  apart  from such  a  constitutional  right  of 

appeal, as a matter of practice, this Court has been granting 

special  leave under  Article 136 in almost,  as a matter  of 

course, every case where a penalty of death is awarded.

12. In this Court,  appeals,  whether  civil  or  criminal,  have 

always been heard by at least two judges. 

13. The authority of the courts to examine and adjudicate 

the  disputes  between the  sovereign and its  subjects  and 

subjects inter se is conferred by law, be it the superior Law 

of  Constitution  or  the  ordinary  statutory  law.    Such 

jurisdiction can be either  original  or  appellate.    A court’s 

jurisdiction to review its  own earlier  judgment  is normally 

conferred by law.  The jurisdiction of this Court to review its 

own judgments is expressly conferred under Article 137 of 

the Constitution.

137. Review of judgments or orders by the Supreme

Court:-  Subject  to  the  provisions  of  any  law made  by 

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Parliament  or  any  rules  made  under  Article  145,  the

Supreme Court shall  have power to review any judgment

pronounced or order made by it.

14. The  question  on  hand is  as  to  the  procedure  to  be 

followed in exercising such jurisdiction.   Article 145 of  the 

Constitution authorizes  the making of  rules  by  this  Court 

regarding the practice and procedure of the court, of course 

such authority of this Court is made subject to the provisions 

of any law made by Parliament.   Article 145(1)(e) expressly 

authorizes  this  Court  to  make  rules  as  to  the  conditions 

subject to which a judgment or order made by this Court be 

reviewed and the procedure for such review.

Article 145 : Rules of Court, etc.— (1)  Subject to the

provisions of  any law made by Parliament,  the Supreme

Court  may from time to  time,  with  the  approval  of  the

President, make rules for regulating generally the practice

and procedure of the Court including;

***** ***** *****

(e) Rules as to the conditions subject  to which any 

judgment pronounced or order made by the Court

may  be  reviewed  and  the  procedure  for  such

review  including  the  time  within  which

applications to the Court for such review are to be

entered;

***** ***** *****

15. In exercise of such power, this Court made Rules from 

time to time.   The Rules in vogue are called the Supreme 

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Court Rules, 1966

6

.   Order XL of the said Rules occurring in 

Part  VIII  deals with the subject  of  review.   Rule 1 thereof 

stipulates  that  no  application  for  review  in  a  criminal 

proceeding  be  entertained  by  this  Court  except  on  the 

ground of an error apparent on the face of the record. 

Rule 1. The Court may review its judgment or order, but no

application  for  review  will  be  entertained  in  a  civil

proceeding  except  on  the  ground  mentioned  in  Order

XLVII,  rule  I  of  the  Code,  and in a  criminal  proceeding

except on the ground of an error apparent on the face of

the record. 

16. Rule 3 stipulates that an application for review shall be 

disposed of by circulation without any oral arguments.

Rule  3.  Unless  otherwise  ordered  by  the  Court  an

application for  review shall  be disposed of  by circulation

without  any  oral  arguments,  but  the  petitioner  may

supplement his petition by additional  written arguments.

The Court may either dismiss the petition or direct notice

to the opposite party.   An application for review shall  as

far as practicable be circulated to the same Judge or Bench

of  Judges that delivered the judgment or order sought to

be reviewed.  

Rule 3 as it exists today was added on 9

effect from 19

6

th

 August, 1978.

th

 August, 1978 with 

 For the sake of clarity, it needs to be mentioned that the Supreme Court Rules, 1966 have been dealt with

as it existed during the course of hearing of these matters.  W.e.f.  19

th

 August 2014, the Supreme Court

Rules, 2013 have come into force.

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17. The  constitutionality  of  the  said  rule  was  promptly 

challenged  and  repelled  by  a  Constitution  Bench  of  this 

Court  in  P.N.  Eswara  Iyer  &  Others  v. Registrar,  

Supreme Court of India, (1980) 4 SCC 680. 

18. This Court took note of the fact that in a departure from 

the existing system, the new rules eliminate oral hearing in a 

review application and mandate  that  a review application 

shall  be disposed of by circulation.   The Court also noticed 

that  even  the  new  Rules  do  not  totally  eliminate  the 

possibility of an oral  hearing, the discretion is preserved in 

the Court to grant  an oral  hearing in an appropriate case.  

The  Court  negated  the  submission  that  “the  scuttling  of  oral 

presentation and open hearing is subversive of the basic creed that public justice shall be 

rendered from the public seat, not in secret conclave …..”

19. Such  a  conclusion  is  reached  by  the  Court  on  the 

ground that  a review is not  the original  proceeding in this 

Court.    It is preceded by an “antecedent judicial  hearing”,  

therefore,  such  a  second  consideration  need  not  be 

“plenary”.  This  Court  categorically  recorded,  rejecting the 

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challenge that the rule of  audi  alteram partem demands a 

hearing in open court;

“19…..The right to be heard is of the essence but hearing

does not mean more than fair opportunity to present one’s

point on a dispute, followed by a fair consideration thereof

by fair minded judges.   Let us not romanticize this process

nor stretch it to snap it.    Presentation can be written or

oral, depending on the justice of the situation…..”

It further held;

“20. …..Granting  basic  bona  fides  in the  judges  of  the

highest  court  it  is  impossible  to  argue  that  partial

foreclosure of  oral  arguments in court  is either  unfair  or

unreasonable or so vicious an invasion of natural justice as

to be ostracized from our constitution jurisprudence.”

This Court held that the purpose behind amendment of the 

rule eliminating oral  hearing is that  the demands of  court 

management strategies require this Court to examine from 

time to time the procedure to be followed in various classes 

of cases brought before it and make suitable rules.

“25.  ….  The  balancing  of  oral  advocacy  and  written

presentation  is  as  much  a  matter  of  principle  as  of

pragmatism.  The  compulsions  of  realities,  without

compromise on basics, offer the sound solution in a given

situation. There are no absolutes in a universe of relativity.

The pressure of the case-load on the Judges' limited time,

the serious responsibility to bestow the best thought on the

great  issues  of  the  country  projected  on  the  court's

agenda,  the  deep study and large research which must

lend wisdom to the pronouncements of the Supreme Court

which  enjoy  awesome  finality  and  the  unconscionable

backlog of chronic litigation which converts the expensive

end-product through sheer protraction into sour injustice -

all  these  emphasise  the  urgency  of  rationalising  and 

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streamlining  court  management  with  a  view  to  saving

court  time for  the most  number  of  cases with  the least

sacrifice of quality and turnover.  If, without much injury, a

certain  class  of  cases  can  be  disposed  of  without  oral

hearing,  there is no good reason for not making such an

experiment. If,  on a close perusal  of  the paper-book,  the

Judges find that there is no merit or statable case, there is

no special  virtue in sanctifying the dismissal  by an oral

ritual. The problem really is to find out which class of cases

may, without risk of injustice, be disposed of without oral

presentation.  This  is  the  final  court  of  provisional

infallibility, the summit court, which not merely disposes of

cases beyond challenge, but is also the judicial  institution

entrusted  with  the  constitutional  responsibility  of

authoritatively declaring the law of the land. Therefore,  if

oral  hearing  will  perfect  the  process  it  should  not  be

dispensed with. Even so, where issues of national moment

which the Supreme Court alone can adequately tackle are

not  involved,  and  if  a  considerable  oral  hearing  and

considered order  have already  been rendered,  a review

petition  may  not  be  so  demanding  upon  the  Judge's

“Bench” attention, especially if, on the face of it, there is

nothing new, nothing grave at stake.  Even here, if there is

some case  calling  for  examination  or  suggestive  of  an

earlier error, the court may well post the case for an oral 

hearing. (Disposal by circulation is a calculated risk where

no problem or peril is visible.)”

The Bench also observed:

“37.   …We  do  not  claim that  orality  can  be  given  a

permanent holiday. Such an attitude is an over-reaction to

argumentum  ad  nauseum.  But  we  must  importantly

underscore that while lawyer's advocacy cannot be made

to judicial measure especially if judges are impatient, there

is  a  strong  case  for  processing  argumentation  by

rationalisation,  streamlining,  abbreviation and in,  special

situations, elimination. Review proceedings in the Supreme

Court  belongs  to  the  last  category.  There  is  no  rigidity

about  forensic  strategies  and  the  court  must  retain  a

flexible power  in  regard  to  limiting  the  time  of  oral

arguments  or,  in  exceptional  cases,  eliminating  orality

altogether, the paramount principle being fair justice…..”

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20. The reasons given by my learned brother in support of 

his conclusion that a limited oral hearing should be granted 

to the accused are:

(i) that there is a possibility of (given the same 

set  of  facts)  two  judicial  minds  reaching 

different  conclusions  either  to  award  or 

decline to award death sentence.

(ii) that  the  death  penalty  once  executed 

becomes  irreversible  and  therefore  every 

opportunity must be given to the condemned 

convict to establish that his life ought not to 

be extinguished.  The obligation to give such 

an opportunity takes within its sweep, that an 

oral hearing be given in a review petition, as 

a part  of  a “reasonable procedure”  flowing 

from the mandate of Article 21.

(iii) that even a remote chance of deviating from 

the  original  decision  would  justify  an  oral 

hearing in a review petition.

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21. I  agree  with  my  learned  brother  that  death  penalty 

results  in  deprivation  of  the  most  fundamental  liberty 

guaranteed by the Constitution resulting in an irreversible 

situation.  Therefore,  such  deprivation  should  be  only  in 

accordance with the law (both substantive and procedural) 

which is consistent with the constitutional  guarantee under 

Articles 14 and 21 etc. 

22. But,  I  am not  able to agree with the proposition that 

such an obligation extends so far as to compulsorily giving 

an oral  hearing in every case where review is sought by a 

condemned convict. 

23. I  have  already  explained  the  various  safeguards 

provided by  the  Constitution  and the  law of  this  country 

against  awarding  death  penalty.  Barring  the  contingency 

contemplated  under  Article  134,  the  makers  of  the 

Constitution did not even think it fit to provide an appeal to 

this Court  even in cases of  death penalty.   In cases other 

than which are brought before this Court as of right under 

Article 134,  this  Court’s  jurisdiction is  discretionary.    No 

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Page 19

doubt,  such discretion is  to be exercised on the basis  of 

certain established principles of law.   It is a matter of record 

that  this  Court  in  almost  every  case  of  death  penalty 

undertakes  the  examination  of  the  correctness  of  such 

decision.

24. Article 137 does not confer any right to seek review of 

any judgment  of  this Court  in any person.   On the other 

hand, it only recognizes the authority of this Court to review 

its own judgments.  It is a settled position of  law that the 

Courts of limited jurisdiction don’t have any inherent power 

of review.  Though this Court is the apex constitutional court 

with  plenary  jurisdiction,  the  makers  of  the  Constitution 

thought it fit to expressly confer such a power on this Court 

as they were aware that if an error creeps into the judgment 

of  this Court,  there is no way of  correcting it.   Therefore, 

perhaps  they did not  want  to leave scope for  any doubt 

regarding  the  jurisdiction  of  this  Court  to  review  its 

judgments  in appropriate  cases.  They also authorized this 

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Page 20

Court  under  Article  145(1)(e)

7

 to  make  rules  as  to  the 

conditions subject to which a judgment of this Court could be 

reviewed and also make rules regarding the procedure for 

such review.  Both Articles 137 and 145 give this Court the 

authority to review its judgments subject to any law made by 

the Parliament.

25. As observed by this Court in Eswara Iyer’s case, it has 

never been held, either in this country or elsewhere, that the 

rule of  audi alteram partem takes within its sweep the right 

to make oral submissions in every case.  It all depends upon 

the demands of justice in a given case.  Eswara Iyer’s case 

clearly held that  review applications  in this  Court  form a 

class  where  an  oral  hearing  could  be  eliminated  without 

violating any constitutional provision.  Therefore, I regret my 

inability  to  agree  with  the  conclusion  recorded  by  my 

learned brother  Justice Nariman that  the need for  an oral 

hearing flows from the mandate of Article 21.

7

 Article 145. Rules of Court, etc.— (1)  Subject to the provisions of any law made by Parliament, the

Supreme Court  may from time to time,  with the approval  of the President,  make rules  for regulating 

generally the practice and procedure of the Court including;

(e) rules as to the conditions subject to which any judgment pronounced or order

made by the Court may be reviewed and the procedure for such review including the time

within which applications to the Court for such review are to be entered.

21

Page 21

26.  In my opinion, in the absence of any obligation flowing 

from Article 21 to grant an oral hearing, there is no need to 

grant an oral hearing on any one of the grounds recorded by 

my learned brother for the following reasons –

1. That review petitions are normally heard by the 

same  Bench  which  heard  the  appeal. 

Therefore,  the possibility of different judicial 

minds reaching different  conclusions on the 

same set of facts does not arise.

2. The  possibility  of  the  “remote  chance  of 

deviation”  from  the  conclusion  already 

reached in my view is – though emotionally 

very  appealing  in  the  context  of  the 

extinguishment of life – equally applicable to 

all cases of review.

27. Prior  to the amendment  of  Order  XL of  the Supreme 

Court  Rules  in  1978  (which  was  the  subject  matter  of 

challenge in  Eswara Iyer’s  case)  this  Court  granted oral 

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Page 22

hearings  even  at  the  stage  of  review.   It  was  by  the 

amendment  that  the oral  hearings were eliminated at  the 

review stage.  As explained by Eswara Iyer’s case, such an 

amendment  was  necessitated as  a  result  of  unwarranted 

“review baby” boom.  This Court, in exercise of its authority 

under  Article  145  as  a  part  of  the  Court  management 

strategy, thought it fit to eliminate the oral hearings at the 

review stage while preserving the discretion in the Bench 

considering a review application to grant an oral hearing in 

an appropriate  case.   The Constitution Bench itself,  while 

upholding the constitutionality of the amended rule of Order 

XL, observed; 

“All that we mean to indicate is that the mode of ‘hearing’,

whether  it  should be oral  or  written or  both,  whether  it

should be full-length or rationed,  must depend on myriad

factors and future developments.  ‘Judges of the Supreme

Court  must  be  trusted  in  this  regard  and  the  Bar  will

ordinarily  be  associated  when  decisions  affecting

processual justice are taken’.”  (para 37 page 696)

28. I  do  not  see  any  reason  to  take  a  different  view - 

whether the “developments” subsequent to Eswara Iyer’s 

case,  either  in  law or  practice  of  this  Court,  demand  a 

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Page 23

reconsideration of the rule, in my opinion, should be left to 

the Court’s jurisdiction under Article 145. 

………………………………….J.

                                           ( J. CHELAMESWAR )

New Delhi;

September 02, 2014.

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Page 24

REPORTABLE

IN THE SUPREME COURT OF INDIA

CRIMINAL ORIGINAL JURISDICTION

WRIT PETITION (CRIMINAL) NO.77 OF 2014

Mohd. Arif @ Ashfaq … Petitioner 

Versus

The Registrar,

Supreme Court of India & Others … Respondents

WITH

WRIT PETITION (CRIMINAL) NO.137 OF 2010

C. Muniappan & Others … Petitioners 

Versus

The Registrar,

Supreme Court of India … Respondent

WITH

WRIT PETITION (CRIMINAL) NO.52 OF 2011

B.A. Umesh  … Petitioner 

Versus

Registrar,

Supreme Court of India … Respondent

WITH

WRIT PETITION (CRIMINAL) NO.39 OF 2013

Page 25

Sunder @ Sundarajan … Petitioner 

Versus

State by Inspector of Police & Others …

Respondents

WITH

WRIT PETITION (CRIMINAL) NO.108 OF 2014

Yakub Abdul Razak Memon … Petitioner 

Versus

Registrar,

Supreme Court of India & Others … Respondents

AND

WRIT PETITION (CRIMINAL) NO.117 OF 2014

Sonu Sardar  … Petitioner 

Versus

Union of India & Others … Respondents

J U D G M E N T

R.F. Nariman, J.

1. This  group  of  petitions  has  come  before  the 

Constitution Bench by a referral Order dated 28

th

 April, 2014. 

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Page 26

In each of them execution of the death sentence awarded to 

the petitioners has been stayed.  Two basic issues are raised 

by counsel  appearing for the petitioners, (1) the hearing of 

cases in which death sentence has been awarded should be 

by a Bench of at least three if not five Supreme Court Judges 

and (2) the hearing of  Review Petitions in death sentence 

cases should not be by circulation but should only be in open 

Court, and accordingly Order XL Rule 3 of the Supreme Court 

Rules,  1966  should  be  declared  to  be  unconstitutional 

inasmuch  as  persons  on  death  row  are  denied  an  oral 

hearing.

2. Leading the arguments on behalf of the petitioners, Shri 

K.K.  Venugopal,  Senior Advocate appearing in Writ Petition 

(Crl.)  No.137  of  2010  made  a  fervent  plea  that  death 

sentence cases are a distinct category of cases altogether. 

According to the learned counsel,  the award of  the death 

penalty  is  a  direct  deprivation  of  the  right  to  life  under 

Article 21.  The right to liberty under Article 21 is a facet of 

the core right to existence itself, which, if deprived, renders 

all liberty meaningless. This right is available as long as life 

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Page 27

lasts.  [See: Sher Singh v. State of Punjab, (1983) 2 SCC 345 

at para 16; Shatrughan Chauhan v. Union of India, (2014) 3 

SCC 1 at para 35; V. Sriharan v. Union of India, (2014) 4 SCC 

242 at para 19-21. According to the learned counsel, Article 

134 of the Constitution allows an automatic right of appeal 

to the Supreme Court in all death sentence cases.  The death 

penalty  is  irreversible,  as  observed by Bhagwati,  J.  in his 

dissent in Bachan Singh vs. State of Punjab, 1982 (3) SCC 24 

at para 26.  Further, Section 354(3) of the Cr.P.C. recognizes 

the fact that in death sentence cases special reasons have to 

be recorded,  and case law has further  embellished this to 

mean that it can be granted only in the rarest of rare cases. 

Death  sentence  cases  are  given  priority  of  hearing  over 

other  matters by the Supreme Court.   The learned senior 

counsel  further  went  on  to  add that  the  award of  death 

sentence  at  present  depends  upon  the  vagaries  of  the 

judicial  mind  as  highlighted  in  several  Articles  and  by 

Bhagwati, J. in his dissent in Bachan Singh (at paras 70 and 

71).   Further,  the Supreme Court has itself  commented on 

these vagaries in various judgments. [See: Aloke Nath Dutta 

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v.  State  of  W.B. (2007)  12  SCC  230  at  paras  153-178; 

Swamy Shraddananda (2)  v.  State of  Karnataka (2008) 13 

SCC 767 at paras 48-52; and Santosh Kumar Satishbhushan 

Bariyar v.  State of  Maharashtra (2009) 6 SCC 498 at  para 

130]

3. The  187

th

 Law  Commission  Report  of  2003  has 

recommended that at least 5 Judges of the Supreme Court 

hear all death cases.  The Army, Air Force and Navy Acts all 

require  that  court  martials  involving  the  death  sentence 

should be heard by at least 5 senior officers.  An alternative 

submission was made, that even if death sentence cases are 

to  be  heard  by  Benches  of  three  Hon’ble  Judges,  two 

additional Judges can be added at the review stage so that 

five learned Judges dispose of all reviews in death sentence 

cases.

4. A reference was  made to  Order  XXXVIII  of  the 1950 

Supreme Court Rules read with Order XI Rule 1 to show that 

all review cases should be heard by a bench of at least three 

learned  Judges.  This  was  reduced  by  the  Supreme  Court 

Rules 1966 to two Judges by Order  VII  Rule 1. Further,  in 

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Page 29

1978  a  new sub-rule  (3)  was  added  to  Order  XL  of  the 

Supreme Court  Rules providing that  all  review applications 

could now be disposed of and heard by circulation  - that is 

without oral argument.

5. It  was  further  submitted  by  learned  counsel  that 

AMNESTY  Annual  Reports  show that  not  more  than  100 

death  sentences  are  awarded  in  any  given  year.  It  was 

further  submitted  that  ultimately  the  number  of  death 

sentences awarded by the Supreme Court would be only 60 

per annum and that if limited oral arguments were allowed 

in these  cases,  the  Supreme  Court’s  overcrowded docket 

could easily bear the load. Also, under the law as it currently 

stands,  the  success  of  review  in  a  capital  case  could 

potentially turn solely upon the skill  of  counsel  who drafts 

the review petition.   Considering the special  gravity of  the 

consequences that could follow from a mistake by counsel, 

an  oral  hearing  would  be  desirable  to  ensure  that  no 

injustice is inadvertently done.

6. Learned  counsel  appearing  in  Writ  Petition  (Crl.) 

No.77/2014  argued  before  us  that  as  in  his  case  the 

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Page 30

petitioner had undergone over 13 years in jail, in substance 

the petitioner  had already undergone the sentence of  life 

imprisonment, and as in murder cases a sentence of life is 

alternative  to  a  sentence  of  death,  the  petitioner  having 

already undergone a sentence of life imprisonment could not 

be  given  the  death  penalty  in  addition.   He  referred  to 

Sections  415,  418,  426 to  428 and 433-A of  the Cr.P.C.; 

section  53  and  57  of  the  IPC  and  Article  20(1)  of  the 

Constitution to bolster this argument.

7. Shri Jaspal Singh, learned senior Advocate appearing in 

Writ  Petition  (Crl.)  No.108/2014  also  supported  Shri 

Venugopal in demanding a review in open Court and added 

one more reason for doing so.   In all  TADA cases, there is 

only one appeal  before the Supreme Court  and since the 

judicial mind is applied only twice, a review being the third 

bite at the cherry should also be in open Court.

8. In Writ Petition (Crl.) No.39/2013, it was pointed out by 

learned  counsel  appearing  for  the  petitioner  that  the 

Supreme  Court  can  limit  time  for  oral  arguments  under 

Order XLVII Rule 7 of its Rules, and a judgment from South 

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Africa was pointed out which referred to the Indian law as 

well  as  the  law  on  death  penalties  from various  other 

nations.  Similar arguments were advanced in Writ Petition 

(Crl.) No.108 of 2014 and Writ Petition (Crl.) No. 52 of 2011.

9. Shri  Luthra,  learned  Amicus  Curiae  made  two 

submissions  before  us.  In  answer  to  Mr.  Venugopal’s 

alternative plea that  even if  three learned Judges and not 

five learned Judges hear the original appeal, a review can go 

to three of the original Judges plus two Judges newly added 

on,  he  said  that  since  a  review by  its  very  nature  is  a 

discovery  by  the  same  bench  of  an  error  committed  by 

them,  these  (newly  added  Judges)  not  being  part  of  the 

original  bench had no occasion to commit  any error,  and 

therefore,  should not be added on.  The second submission 

made  before  us  is  that  very  often  review  petitions  are 

inartistically drafted consisting of many grounds. One good 

ground which is sufficient is drowned in many other grounds, 

and may miss the review court in circulation, hence the need 

for oral argument.

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Page 32

10. Shri  Ranjit Kumar,  learned Solicitor General  began his 

argument  by  referring  to  Section  362  of  the  Cr.P.C.  and 

saying that  ordinarily in all  criminal  matters  no review is 

provided. When it was pointed out to him that the “court” in 

Section 362 could not possibly refer to the Supreme Court, 

and that the review power in criminal cases at the Supreme 

Court level is to be found in Art.137 of the Constitution and 

Order XL of the Supreme Court Rules,  the learned Solicitor 

General did not seriously press this contention.  He relied on 

Sajjan Singh vs. State of Rajasthan, (1965) 1 SCR 933 and 

various other judgments to bolster a submission made by an 

exhaustive  reading  of  Krishna  Iyer,  J.  judgment  in  P.N. 

Eswara Iyer v. Registrar, Supreme Court, (1980) 4 SCC 680, 

where the amendment in Order XL, Rule 3 of the Supreme 

Court Rules, 1966 disposing of review petitions by circulation 

was upheld by a bench of five Hon’ble Judges.  Para 11 of the 

said judgment was read out together with para 14 to show 

that Judges do collectively apply their minds in Chambers to 

dispose of review petitions. In para 16 of the said judgment 

it was pointed out that the power of oral hearing is granted 

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Page 33

earlier  when the main appeal  is heard and is therefore a 

good answer to oral hearing being denied at a review stage. 

The important point made here is that the Supreme Court is 

presently under severe stress because of  its workload and 

cannot  have review petitions which become re-hearings of 

the same lis to further damage an already severely strained 

judicial system. Para 18 was pointed out to us showing that 

in  the  U.S.  and  in  the  U.K.  written  arguments  are  often 

substituted  for  oral  arguments.  In  para  22,  it  was  also 

pointed out that the working of the court would be disrupted 

if the two Judges who heard the appeal were to sit together 

again  after  their  bench  broke  to  hear  a  review petition. 

Interestingly,  the  learned  Judge  refers  in  para  19  to  the 

justice of  the situation including or  excluding oral  hearing 

and in para 25 to which class of cases should be excluded 

from oral hearing.  It was also pointed out to us that in paras 

34 and 35, the learned Judge enlarged the criminal  review 

jurisdiction to error committed which is apparent  from the 

record - and that the word “record” should include within it 

all cases where some new material which was not adverted 

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Page 34

to earlier now be taken into account.  The learned Solicitor 

General  also  took  us  through various  other  judgments  in 

which this statement  of  the law has  since been followed. 

[See:  Devender Pal Singh v. State, NCT of Delhi & Another, 

(2003) 2 SCC 501 at page 508, 509 and Ram Deo Chauhan 

v. Bani Kanta Das, (2010) 14 SCC 209 at para 35].

11. In rejoinder,  Mr.  K.K.Venugopal  exhorted us to go into 

the facts of his case and told us that the Review Petition in 

his  case  has  been  pending  since  the  year  2010.   He, 

therefore,  argued that  the entire matter  should be heard 

afresh  by  a  bench  of  three  Judges,  as  both  the  learned 

Judges who heard the original appeal have since retired.

DISCUSSION:

12. In a case like this,  we think it  apposite  to start  our 

discussion with reference to the judgment  of  this Court  in 

P.N. Eswara Iyer (supra), inasmuch as that judgment upheld 

the amendment  in Order  XL Rule 3 of  the Supreme Court 

Rules,  which  amendment  did  away  with  oral  hearing  of 

review petitions in open Court.  That is also a judgment of 

the Constitution Bench and, therefore, being a judgment of a 

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Page 35

co-ordinate Bench, is binding on this Bench.  The petitioners 

in  that  case  had  raised  two  arguments  to  invalidate  the 

amendment.  The first argument was that oral presentation 

and open hearing was  an aspect  of  the basic  creed that 

public justice is to be rendered from Courts which are open 

to the public and not in Star Chambers reminiscent  of  the 

Stuart  dynasty  that  ruled  England.  While  answering  this 

argument,  though  the  Constitution  Bench  accepted  the 

importance of  oral  hearing,  generally it took the view that 

the Court,  when it comes to deciding a review application, 

decides  something very miniscule,  and the amended rule 

sufficiently meets  the requirement  of  the principle of  audi 

alteram partem.  The Court clarified that deciding a review 

petition by 'circulation'  would only mean that  there would 

not be hearing in Court but still there would be discussion at 

judicial  conference and the Judges would meet,  deliberate 

and  reach  a  collective  conclusion.   Thus,  rejecting  the 

argument  of  oral  public hearing,  the Court made  inter alia 

the following observation:

“15.   The  key  question  is  different. 

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Page 36

Does it mean that by receiving written

arguments as provided in the new rule,

and  reading  and  discussing  at  the

conference table, as distinguished from

the  'robed'  appearance  on  the  Bench

and hearing oral  submissions,  what  is

perpetrated is so arbitrary,  unfair  and

unreasonable  a  'Pantomimi'  as  to

crescendo into unconstitutionality? This

phantasmagoric  distortion  must  be

dismissed as too morbid to be regarded

seriously  –  in  the  matter  of  review

petitions at the Supreme Court level.

xx xx xx

19.   This  Court,  as  Sri  Garg  rightly

emphasised, has assigned special value

to  public  hearing,  and courts  are  not

caves nor cloisters but shrines of justice

accessible for  public  prayer  to  all  the

people.   Rulings need not  be cited for

this  basic  proposition.   But  every

judicial  exercise need not be televised

on the nation's network.  The right to be

heard  is  of  the  essence  but  hearing

does  not  mean  more  than  fair

opportunity to present one's point on a

dispute, followed by a fair consideration

thereof  by fair minded judges.   Let  us

not romanticise this process nor stretch

it  to  snap  it.   Presentation  can  be

written or oral, depending on the justice

of  the  situation.   Where  oral

persuasiveness is necessary it is unfair

to  exclude  it  and,  therefore,  arbitrary

too.  But where oral presentation is not

that  essential,  its  exclusion  is  not

obnoxious.   What  is  crucial  is  the

guarantee  of  the  application  of  an

instructed,  intelligent,  impartial  and 

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open mind to the points presented.   A

blank judge wearied by oral aggression

is prone to slumber while an alert mind

probing  the  'papered'  argument  may

land  on  vital  aspects.   To  swear  by

orality  or  to  swear  at  manuscript

advocacy is as wrong as judicial allergy

to arguments in court.  Often-times, it is

the  judge  who  will  ask  for  oral

argument as it aids him much.   To be

left  helpless  among  ponderous  paper

books  without  the  oral  highlights  of

counsel,  is  counter-productive.

Extremism fails in law and life.”

13. The Court, in the process, also noted that in many other 

jurisdictions, there was exclusion of  public hearing in such 

cases.  Further, the Court found justification in enacting such 

a rule having regard to mounting dockets and the mindless 

manner of filing review petitions in most of the cases.

14. The argument was also raised, predicated on Article 14 

of the Constitution, that Order XL Rule 1 provides a wider set 

of  grounds of  review of  orders in civil  proceedings than in 

criminal proceedings.  The Court dealt with this argument in 

paras 34 to 36, and since some of the observations made in 

those  paras  are  very  significant  and  relevant  for  our 

purposes, we reproduce verbatim those paras herein:

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Page 38

“34.  The rule (Order XL,  Rule 1),  on its

face,  affords a wider  set  of  grounds for

review for orders in civil proceedings, but

limits  the  ground  vis-a-vis  criminal 

proceedings  to  'errors  apparent  on the

face of the record'.  If at all, the concern

of  the law to avoid judicial  error  should

be heightened when life or  liberty is in

peril  since civil  penalties  are often less

traumatic.  So, it is reasonable to assume

that  the framers of  the rules  could not

have intended a restrictive review over

the criminal  orders or  judgments.   It  is

likely  to  be  the  other  way  about.

Supposing  an  accused  is  sentenced  to

death  by  the  Supreme  Court  and  the

'deceased'  shows  up  in  court  and  the

court  discovers  the  tragic  treachery  of

the  recorded  testimony.   Is  the  court

helpless  to  review  and  set  aside  the

sentence of hanging?  We think not.  The

power to review is in Article 137 and it is

equally wide in all proceedings.  The rule

merely  canalises  the  flow  from  the

reservoir  of  power.   The stream cannot

stifle  the  source.   Moreover,  the

dynamics of interpretation depend on the

demand of  the  context  and the  lexical

limits  of  the test.   Here 'record'  means

any material  which is already on record

or may, with the permission of the court,

be brought on record.  If justice summons

the judges to allow a vital  material  in, it

becomes  part  of  the  record;  and  if

apparent  error  is  there,  correction

becomes necessitous.

35.  The purpose is plain, the language is

elastic and interpretation of a necessary

power must naturally be expansive.  The 

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substantive power is derived from Article

137 and is as wide for criminal as for civil

proceedings.   Even  the  difference  in

phraseology in the rule (Order 40, Rule 2)

must,  therefore,  be read to  encompass

the  same  area  and  not  to  engraft  an

artificial  divergence  productive  of

anomaly.   If  the  expression  'record'  is

read to mean, in its semantic sweep, any

material  even  later  brought  on  record,

with  the  leave  of  the  court,  it  will

embrace  subsequent  events,  new light

and other grounds which we find in Order

47, Rule 1, CPC.  We see no insuperable

difficulty in equating the area in civil and

criminal proceedings when review power

is invoked from the same source.

36.   True, the review power vis-a-vis

criminal  matters was raised only in the

course  of  the  debate  at  the  Bar.   But

when  the  whole  case  is  before  us  we

must  surely  deal  comprehensively  with

every aspect argued and not piece-meal

with  truncated  parts.   That  will  be

avoidance  of  our  obligation.   We have,

therefore,  cleared  the  ground  as  the

question  is  of  moment,  of  frequent

occurrence  and  was  mooted  in  the

course  of  the  hearing.   This

pronouncement  on review jurisdiction in

criminal  proceedings  set  at  rest  a

possible  controversy  and  is  as  much

binding  on  this  Court  itself  (unless

overruled)  as  on  litigants.   That  is  the

discipline of  the law of  precedents  and

the import of Article 141.”

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15. It  is,  thus,  clear  from the  reading  of  the  aforesaid 

judgment that the very rule of deciding review petitions by 

'circulation', and without giving an oral hearing in the open 

Court, has already been upheld.  In such a situation, can the 

petitioners  still  claim that  when it  comes  to deciding the 

review petitions where the death sentence is pronounced, 

oral hearing should be given as a matter of right?

16. We may like to state at  this stage itself  that  we are 

going to answer the above question in the affirmative as our 

verdict is that in review petitions arising out of those cases 

where the death penalty is awarded, it would be necessary 

to  accord  oral  hearing  in  the  open  Court.   We  will 

demonstrate, at the appropriate stage, that this view of ours 

is not contrary to P.N. Eswara Iyer (supra), and in fact, there 

are  ample  observations  in  the  said  Constitution  Bench 

judgment  itself,  giving  enough  space  for  justifying  oral 

hearing in cases like the present.  

17. As the determination of  this case has to do with the 

fundamental  right  to  life,  which,  among  all  fundamental 

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rights, is the most precious to all human beings, we need to 

delve into Article 21 which reads as follows: 

“21. Protection of life and personal  liberty.—

No  person  shall  be  deprived  of  his  life  or

personal  liberty  except  according  to

procedure established by law.” 

18. This Article has its origin in nothing less than the Magna 

Carta,  (the 39

th

 Article) of 1215 vintage which King John of 

England was forced to sign by his Barons.  It is a little known 

fact that  this original  charter  of  liberty was faulted at  the 

very start and did not get off the ground because of a Papal 

Bull issued by Pope Innocent the third declaring this charter 

to be void.  Strangely, like Magna Carta, Art. 21 did not get 

off the ground for 28 years after which,  unshackled,  it has 

become the single most important fundamental right under 

the Constitution of India,  being described as one of a holy 

trinity consisting of a ‘golden triangle’ (see Minerva Mills v. 

Union of India 1981 (1) SCR 206 at  263), and being one of 

two articles which cannot be eclipsed during an emergency 

(Article  359  as  amended  by  the  Constitution  44

Amendment).

th 

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19. It is to be noted that Article 21 as it originally stood in 

the Draft Constitution was as follows (Cl.15):—

“No person shall  be deprived of  his  life or

liberty without due process of law.”

20. The Drafting Committee introduced two changes in the 

Clause –  (i)  They qualified the word ‘liberty’  by the word 

‘personal’  in order to preclude a wide interpretation of the 

word so as not to include the freedoms which had already 

been dealt  with in Art.13 (corresponding to Art.  19 of  the 

Constitution).  (ii)  They  also  substituted  the  words  “due 

process  of  law”  by  the  words  “procedure  established  by 

law”,  following  the  Japanese  Constitution  (Art.  XXXI), 

because they were more ‘specific’.

21. Over the question whether the expression ‘due process 

of law’ should be restored in place of the words ‘procedure 

established by law’, there was a sharp difference of opinion 

in the Constituent Assembly, even amongst the members of 

the Drafting Committee.  On the one side, was the view of 

Sri Munshi, in favour of ‘due process’.

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22. On the other side, was Sri Alladi Krishnaswami Iyer, who 

favoured the taking of life and liberty by legislation.

Dr.  Ambedkar  merely summed up the two views and 

left it to the House “to decide in any way it likes”.

The  House  adopted  the  Clause  as  drafted  by  the 

Drafting Committee, rejecting “due process”.  The result, as 

stated by Dr.  Ambedkar,  at  a subsequent  stage,  was that 

Art.21 gave “a carte blanche to make and provide for the 

arrest of any person under any circumstances as Parliament 

may think fit.”

23. As was stated by the Supreme Court in A.K. Gopalan v. 

The State of Madras, 1950 SCR 88, Article 21 seems to have 

been borrowed from Article 31 of the then recently enacted 

Japanese Constitution.  This was in keeping with B.N.  Rau’s 

view who,  in  his  initial  draft  of  the  Fundamental  Rights 

Chapter,  followed the advice of U.S.  Supreme Court Justice 

Frankfurter  not  to incorporate  “due process”  from the 5

amendment to the U.S. Constitution.  The result was that so 

far  as property was concerned,  a full  blown ‘due process’ 

was introduced in Articles 19(1)(f) and 31 of the Constitution. 

th 

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The  5

th

 amendment  of  the  U.S.  Constitution  was  thus 

bifurcated  –  a  full  blown  substantive  due  process  qua 

property,  and  procedure  established  by  law qua  life  and 

personal  liberty.   It took 28 years for India to remedy this 

situation.  By the Constitution 44

th

 amendment Act, even the 

truncated right to property was completely deleted,  and in 

the same year in Maneka Gandhi v. Union of India, (1978) 2 

SCR  621,  the  Supreme  Court  held  that  the  procedure 

established by law cannot  be arbitrary but  should be just, 

fair and reasonable.

24. A  six  Judge  Bench  of  the  Supreme  Court  in  A.K. 

Gopalan’s case construed Art.21 linguistically and textually. 

Kania, J. held:

“Four  marked points  of  distinction between

the clause in the American Constitution and

Article 21 of the Constitution of India may be

noticed at this stage. The first is that in USA’s

Constitution  the  word  “liberty”  is  used

simpliciter  while  in  India  it  is  restricted  to

personal liberty. (2) in USA’s Constitution the

same protection is given to property, while in

India  the  fundamental  right  in  respect  of

property  is  contained in Article 31.  (3)  The

word  “due”  is  omitted  altogether  and  the

expression “due process of law” is not used

deliberately,  (4)  The  word  “established”  is 

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used  and  is  limited  to  “Procedure”  in  our

Article 21.” (at page 109)

In the picturesque language of Das, J. it was stated:

“It  is  said  that  if  this  strictly  technical 

interpretation is put  upon Article 21 then it

will not constitute a fundamental right at all

and  need  not  have  been  placed  in  the

chapter  on  Fundamental  Rights,  for  every

person's life and personal  liberty will  be at

the  mercy  of  the  Legislature  which,  by

providing  some  sort  of  a  procedure  and

complying  with  the  few  requirements  of

Article 22,  may,  at  any  time,  deprive  a

person of his life and liberty at its pleasure

and  whim.  ...  Subject  to  the  limitations,  I

have  mentioned  which  are  certainly

justiciable, our Constitution has accepted the

supremacy of  the legislative authority and,

that being so, we must be prepared to face

occasional  vagaries of that body and to put

up  with  enactments  of  the  nature  of  the

atrocious  English  statute  to  which  learned

counsel  for  the  petitioner  has  repeatedly

referred,  namely,  that  the  Bishop  of

Rochester's  cook  be  boiled  to  death.  If

Parliament may take away life by providing

for hanging by the neck, logically there can

be no objection if  it provides a sentence of

death  by shooting by a firing squad or  by

guillotine or in the electric chair or even by

boiling in oil.  A procedure laid down by the

legislature  may  offend  against  the  Court's

sense of justice and fair play and a sentence

provided by the legislature may outrage the

Court's  notions  of  penology,  but  that  is  a

wholly  irrelevant  consideration.  The  Court

may construe and interpret the Constitution 

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and ascertain its true meaning but once that

is done the Court cannot question its wisdom

or  policy.  The Constitution is supreme.  The

Court must take the Constitution as it finds

it,  even  if  it  does  not  accord  with  its

preconceived  notions  of  what  an  ideal

Constitution  should  be.  Our  protection

against legislative tyranny, if any, lies in the

ultimate  analysis  in  a  free  and  intelligent

public opinion which must eventually assert

itself.” (at page 319-321)

25. In  Kharak Singh v.  State  of  U.P.,  (1964) 1 SCR 332, 

Gopalan’s  reading  of  fundamental  rights  in  watertight 

compartments was reiterated by the majority. However, they 

went one step further to say that “personal liberty” in Art.21 

takes  in  and  comprises  the  residue  after  all  the  rights 

granted by Art.19.

Justices Subba Rao and Shah disagreed. They held:

“The  fundamental  right  of  life  and  personal

liberty have many attributes and some of them

are found in Art. 19. If a person's fundamental

right  under Art. 21 is infringed,  the State can

rely upon a law to sustain the action; but that

cannot be a complete answer unless the said

law satisfies the test laid down in Art. 19(2) so

far as the attributes covered by Art. 19(1) are

concerned.  In  other  words,  the  State  must

satisfy that  both the fundamental  rights  are

not  infringed by showing that  there is a law

and  that  it  does  amount  to  a  reasonable

restriction within the meaning of  Art. 19(2) of 

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the  Constitution.  But  in  this  case  no  such

defence is available, as admittedly there is no

such  law.  So  the  petitioner  can  legitimately

plead that  his fundamental  rights both under

Art. 19(1)(d) and  Art. 21 are  infringed  by  the

State.” (at page 356-357)

26. The  minority  judgment  of  Subba  Rao  and  Shah,  JJ. 

eventually became law in R.C. Cooper (Bank Nationalisation) 

vs.  Union of  India, (1970) 1 SCC 248,  where the 11-Judge 

Bench finally discarded Gopalan’s view and held that various 

fundamental  rights  contained  in  different  articles  are  not 

mutually exclusive: 

“We  are  therefore  unable  to  hold that  the

challenge to the validity of the provision for

acquisition is liable to be tested only on the

ground of  non-compliance with Article 31(2).

Article 31(2) requires  that  property  must  be

acquired for a public purpose and that it must

be acquired under a law with characteristics

set  out  in  that  Article.  Formal  compliance

with the conditions under Article 31(2) is not

sufficient  to  negative  the protection  of  the

guarantee  of  the  right  to  property.

Acquisition must be under the authority of a

law and the expression "law"  means  a law

which  is  within  the  competence  of  the

Legislature,  and  does  not  impair  the

guarantee  of  the  rights  in  Part  III.  We  are

unable, therefore, to agree that Articles 19(1)

(f) and 31(2) are  mutually  exclusive.”  (para

53) 

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27. The stage was now set for the judgment in  Maneka 

Gandhi.  Several judgments were delivered, and the upshot 

of all of them was that Article 21 was to be read along with 

other  fundamental  rights,  and so read not  only has  the 

procedure  established  by  law  to  be  just,  fair  and 

reasonable, but also the law itself has to be reasonable as 

Articles 14 and 19 have now to be read into Article 21. 

[See: at page 646-648 per Beg, CJ., at page 669, 671-674, 

687 per Bhagwati, J. and at page 720-723 per Krishna Iyer, 

J.].   Krishna  Iyer,  J.  set  out  the  new  doctrine  with 

remarkable clarity thus: 

“To sum up,  'procedure’  in Article 21 means

fair, not formal procedure. 'Law' is reasonable

law,  not  any  enacted  piece.  As

Article 22 specifically  spells  out  the

procedural  safeguards  for  preventive  and

punitive detention,  a law providing for  such

detentions  should  conform to  Article 22.  It

has  been rightly pointed out  that  for  other

rights  forming  part  of  personal  liberty,  the

procedural  safeguards  enshrined  in

Article 21 are  available.  Otherwise,  as  the

procedural  safeguards  contained  in

Article 22 will  be  available  only  in  cases  of

preventive and punitive detention,  the right

to  life,  more  fundamental  than  any  other 

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forming  part  of  personal  liberty  and

paramount  to  the  happiness,  dignity  and

worth of the individual, will not be entitled to

any  procedural  safeguard  save  such  as  a

legislature’s mood chooses.”  (at page 723)

28. Close on the heels of Maneka Gandhi’s case came Mithu 

vs.  State of  Punjab,  (1983) 2 SCC 277,  in which case the 

Court noted as follows:

“In  Sunil  Batra  vs.  Delhi  Administration,

(1978)  4  SCC  494  while  dealing  with  the

question  as  to  whether  a  person  awaiting

death  sentence  can  be  kept  in  solitary

confinement, Krishna Iyer J. said that though

our Constitution did not have a "due process"

clause as in the American Constitution;  the

same  consequence  ensued  after  the

decisions in the Bank Nationalisation’s case

(1970) 1 SCC 248 and Maneka Gandhi’s case

(1978) 1 SCC 248. … 

In  Bachan  Singh  which  upheld  the

constitutional  validity  of  the death penalty,

Sarkaria  J.,  speaking  for  the  majority,  said

that if Article 21 is understood in accordance

with the interpretation put upon it in Maneka

Gandhi, it will read to say that:

No person shall be deprived of his

life  or  personal  liberty  except

according  to  fair,  just  and

reasonable procedure established

by valid law.” (at para 6)  

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The  wheel  has  turned  full  circle.  Substantive  due 

process is now to be applied to the fundamental right to life 

and liberty.

Application of Art.21 to these Writ Petitions: 

29. We agree with Shri K.K.Venugopal that death sentence 

cases  are a distinct  category  of  cases  altogether.   Quite 

apart from Art.134 of the Constitution granting an automatic 

right of appeal  to the Supreme Court in all  death sentence 

cases, and apart from death sentence being granted only in 

the rarest of rare cases, two factors have impressed us.  The 

first is the irreversibility of a death penalty.  And the second 

is the fact that different judicially trained minds can arrive at 

conclusions which,  on the same facts, can be diametrically 

opposed to each other.  Adverting first to the second factor 

mentioned above,  it  is well  known that  the basic principle 

behind returning the verdict of death sentence is that it has 

to be awarded in the rarest of  rare cases.   There may be 

aggravating as well as mitigating circumstances which are to 

be  examined by  the  Court.   At  the  same  time,  it  is  not 

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possible to lay down the principles to determine as to which 

case  would  fall  in  the  category  of  rarest  of  rare  cases, 

justifying the death sentence.  It is not even easy to mention 

precisely  the  parameters  or  aggravating/mitigating 

circumstances which should be kept in mind while arriving at 

such a question.   Though attempts are made by Judges in 

various  cases  to  state  such  circumstances,  they  remain 

illustrative only.

30. Deflecting a  little  from the  death  penalty  cases,  we 

deem it  necessary to  make certain general  comments  on 

sentencing, as they are relevant to the context.  Crime and 

punishment  are two sides of  the same coin.   Punishment 

must fit the crime.  The notion of 'Just deserts' or a sentence 

proportionate to the offender's culpability was the principle 

which,  by passage of  time,  became applicable to criminal 

jurisprudence.  It is not out of place to mention that in all of 

recorded history,  there has never been a time when crime 

and punishment  have not  been the subject of  debate and 

difference of opinion.   There are no statutory guidelines to 

regulate punishment.  Therefore, in practice, there is much 

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variance in the matter  of  sentencing.   In many countries, 

there are laws prescribing sentencing guidelines, but there is 

no statutory sentencing policy in India.  The IPC, prescribes 

only the maximum punishments  for  offences and in some 

cases minimum punishment is also prescribed.  The Judges 

exercise wide discretion within the statutory limits and the 

scope for deciding the amount of punishment is left to the 

judiciary  to  reach  decision  after  hearing  the  parties. 

However,  what  factors  which  should  be  considered  while 

sentencing is not  specified under  law in any great  detail. 

Emanuel  Kant, the German philosopher,  sounds pessimistic 

when he says “judicial  punishment can never serve merely 

as a means to further another good, whether for the offender 

himself  or for the society,  but must always be inflicted on 

him for the sole reason that he has committed a crime”.  A 

sentence  is  a  compound  of  many  factors,  including  the 

nature  of  the  offence  as  well  as  the  circumstances 

extenuating or aggravating the offence.  A large number of 

aggravating  circumstances  and  mitigating  circumstances 

have been pointed out in  Bachan Singh v. State of Punjab, 

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(1980) 2 SCC 684 at  pages 749-750,  that  a Judge should 

take  into  account  when  awarding  the  death  sentence. 

Again, as pointed out above, apart from the fact that these 

lists are only illustrative, as clarified in Bachan Singh itself, 

different  judicially  trained  minds  can  apply  different 

aggravating  and  mitigating  circumstances  to  ultimately 

arrive at  a conclusion,  on considering all  relevant  factors 

that the death penalty may or may not be awarded in any 

given case.  Experience based on judicial decisions touching 

upon  this  aspect  amply  demonstrate  such  a  divergent 

approach being taken.  Though, it is not necessary to dwell 

upon this aspect elaborately, at the same time, it needs to 

be emphasised that  when on the same set  of  facts,  one 

judicial  mind  can  come  to  the  conclusion  that  the 

circumstances do not  warrant  the  death penalty,  whereas 

another may feel it to be a fit case fully justifying the death 

penalty,  we feel  that  when a  convict who has suffered the 

sentence of death and files a review petition, the necessity 

of oral hearing in such a review petition becomes an integral 

part of “reasonable procedure”.  

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31. We  are  of  the  opinion  that  “reasonable  procedure” 

would encompass oral hearing of review petitions arising out 

of  death penalties.  The statement  of  Justice Holmes, that 

the life of law is not logic; it is experience, aptly applies here. 

32.   The first  factor  mentioned above,  in support  of  our 

conclusion,  is  more  fundamental  than  the  second  one. 

Death  penalty  is  irreversible  in  nature.   Once  a  death 

sentence is executed, that results in taking away the life of 

the convict. If it is found thereafter that such a sentence was 

not  warranted,  that  would be of  no use as the life of  that 

person cannot be brought back.  This being so, we feel that if 

the fundamental right to life is involved, any procedure to be 

just,  fair and reasonable should take into account  the two 

factors  mentioned  above.  That  being  so,  we  feel  that  a 

limited oral hearing even at the review stage is mandated by 

Art.21 in all death sentence cases. 

 33.   The validity of no oral hearing rule in review petitions, 

generally, has been upheld in P.N. Eswara Iyer (supra) which 

is a binding precedent.  Review petitions arising out of death 

sentence cases is carved out as a separate category as oral  

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hearing in such review petitions is found to be mandated by 

Article 21.  We are of the opinion that the importance of oral 

hearing which is  recognised by the Constitution Bench in 

P.N.  Eswara Iyer  (supra)  itself,  would apply in such cases. 

We are conscious of  the fact that  while awarding a death 

sentence, in most of the cases, this Court would generally be 

affirming the decision on this aspect already arrived at  by 

two Courts below namely the trial court as well as the High 

Court.  After such an affirmation, the scope of review of such 

a judgment may be very narrow.  At the same time, when it 

is a question of life and death of a person,  even a remote 

chance of  deviating from such a decision while exercising 

the review jurisdiction, would justify oral hearing in a review 

petition.  To borrow the words of Justice Krishna Iyer in P.N. 

Eswara Iyer (supra): 

“23. The magic of the spoken word, the

power of  the Socratic process and the

instant clarity of the bar-Bench dialogue

are too precious to be parted with”  

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34. We feel that this oral hearing, in death sentence cases, 

becomes too precious to be parted with.  We also quote the 

following observations from that judgment : 

“29A.  The possible impression that we

are  debunking  the  value  of  oral

advocacy in open court must be erased.

Experience has shown that, at all levels,

the bar,  through the spoken word and

the written brief, has aided the process

of  judicial  justice.   Justicing  is  an  art

even  as  advocacy  is  an  art.   Happy

interaction between the two makes for

the  functional  fulfillment  of  the  court

system.   No  judicial  'emergency'  can

jettison  the  vital  breath  of  spoken

advocacy  in  an  open  forum.   Indeed,

there  is  no  judicial  cry  for

extinguishment  of  oral  argument

altogether.”

35. No doubt,  the Court  thereafter  reminded us that  the 

time has come for proper evaluation of oral argument at the 

review stage.   However,  when it  comes  to  death  penalty 

cases, we feel that the power of the spoken word has to be 

given yet another opportunity even if the ultimate success 

rate is minimal.  

36.    If a pyramidical structure is to be imagined, with life on 

top, personal liberty (and all the rights it encompasses under 

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the  new  doctrine)  immediately  below  it  and  other 

fundamental  rights below personal  liberty it is obvious that 

this judgment  will  apply only to death  sentence cases.  In 

most other cases, the factors mentioned by Krishna Iyer, J. in 

particular the Supreme Court’s overcrowded docket, and the 

fact  that  a full  oral  hearing has  preceded judgment  of  a 

criminal  appeal  on merits,  may tilt  the balance the other 

way.

37.  It  is also important  to advert  to Shri  Luthra,  learned 

Amicus  Curiae’s  submission.   Review  Petitions  are 

inartistically  drafted.  And  oral  submissions  by  a  skilled 

advocate can bring home a point which may otherwise not 

be succinctly stated, given the enlarged scope of review in 

criminal  matters, as stated in  P.N.  Eswara Iyer’s case.  The 

fact that  the courts  overcrowded docket  would be able to 

manage such limited oral hearings in death sentence cases 

only, being roughly 60 per annum, is not a factor to which 

great weight need be accorded as the fundamental right to 

life is the only paramount factor in these cases.

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38. With reference to the plea that all death sentence cases 

be heard by at least three Hon’ble Judges, that appears to 

have been remedied by Supreme Court Rules, 2013, Order VI 

Rule 3, which has been recently notified, reads thus:

ORDER VI

CONSTITUTION OF  DIVISION COURTS  AND POWERS  OF  A 

SINGLE JUDGE

3.Every cause, appeal or other proceedings

arising  out  of  a  case  in  which  death

sentence has  been confirmed or  awarded

by  the  High  Court  shall  be  heard  by  a

Bench  consisting  of  not  less  than  three

Judges.

4.If  a  Bench  of  less  than  three  Judges,

hearing a cause, appeal or matter, is of the

opinion  that  the  accused  should  be

sentenced to death it shall refer the matter

to  the  Chief  Justice  who  shall  thereupon

constitute a Bench of  not  less than three

Judges for hearing it.

39. Henceforth,  in all  cases in which death sentence has 

been awarded by the High Court in appeals pending before 

the Supreme Court, only a bench of three Hon’ble Judges will 

hear  the same.   This is for  the reason that  at  least  three 

judicially trained minds need to apply their minds at the final 

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stage of  the journey of  a convict on death row,  given the 

vagaries  of  the  sentencing  procedure  outlined  above.  At 

present,  we  are  not  persuaded to  have a  minimum of  5 

learned Judges hear all  death sentence cases. Further,  we 

agree with the submission of  Shri  Luthra that  a review is 

ordinarily  to  be  heard  only  by  the  same  bench  which 

originally heard the criminal appeal. This is obviously for the 

reason that in order that a review succeeds, errors apparent 

on the record have to be found. It is axiomatic that the same 

learned  Judges  alleged  to  have  committed  the  error  be 

called upon now to rectify such error.   We,  therefore,  turn 

down Shri  Venugopal’s plea that  two additional  Judges be 

added at the review stage in death sentence cases.

40. We do not  think it  necessary to advert  to Shri  Jaspal 

Singh’s arguments since we are accepting that a limited oral 

review be  granted  in  all  death  sentence  cases  including 

TADA cases. We accept what is pointed out by the learned 

counsel  for  the petitioner  in Writ  Petition No.39/2013 and 

provide for an outer limit  of  30 minutes in all  such cases. 

When we come to P. N. Eswara Iyer’s case which was heavily 

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relied upon by the learned Solicitor General, we find that the 

reason for upholding the newly introduced Order XL Rule 3 in 

the  Supreme  Court  Rules  is  basically  because  of  severe 

stress of the Supreme Court workload. We may add that that 

stress has been multiplied several fold since the year 1980. 

Despite  that,  as  we  have  held  above,  we  feel  that  the 

fundamental  right  to life and the irreversibility of  a death 

sentence mandate that oral hearing be given at the review 

stage in death sentence cases, as a just, fair and reasonable 

procedure  under  Article  21  mandates  such  hearing,  and 

cannot give way to the severe stress of the workload of the 

Supreme  Court.   Interestingly,  in  P.N.  Eswara  Iyer’s  case 

itself, two interesting observations are to be found. In para 

19, Krishna Iyer, J. says that “…presentation can be written 

or oral,  depending upon the justice of  the situation.”  And 

again in para 25, the learned Judge said that “…the problem 

really is to find out which class of cases may, without risk of 

injustice, be disposed of without oral presentation.”

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41. We are of the view that the justice of the situation in 

this class of  cases demands a limited oral  hearing for  the 

reasons given above.

42. Insofar as Shri Venugopal’s plea in his writ petition, that 

since his review petition is pending since the year 2010 and 

since the two learned Judges who heard the appeal on merits 

have since retired, the entire matter should be heard afresh 

by a bench of three Hon’ble Judges, we feel that the review 

petition  that  is  pending  since  the  year  2010  should  be 

disposed of as soon as possible by a bench of three Hon’ble 

Judges after  giving counsel  a maximum of  30 minutes for 

oral  argument.   This matter,  therefore,  be placed before a 

bench of  three Hon’ble Judges by the Registry as soon as 

possible.

43. Turning now to  the facts  of  W.P.No.77/2014, we find 

that  the  petitioner  was  arrested  on  25.12.2000  and 

convicted by the learned Sessions Judge on 31-10-2005.  The 

High  Court  dismissed  his  appeal  on  13.9.2007  and  the 

Supreme Court dismissed the appeal  from the High Court’s 

judgment on 10.8.2011. The Review Petition of the petitioner 

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was, thereafter, dismissed on 28.8.2012. We are informed at 

the  bar  that  a  curative  petition  was  thereafter  filed 

sometime in 2013 which was dismissed on 23.1.2014.  All 

along,  the petitioner has been in jail  for about 13½ years.  

Since the curative petition also stands dismissed after the 

dismissal of review petition, we would not like to reopen all 

these proceedings at this stage.   Also,  time taken in court 

proceedings cannot be taken into account to say that there 

is a delay which would convert a death sentence into one for 

life. [See:  Triveniben v. State of Gujarat, (1989) 1 SCC 678, 

at  paras 16, 23,  72].   Equally,  spending 13½ years in jail 

does not mean that the petitioner has undergone a sentence 

for life.  It is settled by Swamy Shraddananda (2) v. State of 

Karnataka, (2008) 13 SCC 767 that awarding a sentence of 

life imprisonment means life and not a mere 14 years in jail. 

In this case, it was held as follows:

“75. It  is  now  conclusively  settled  by  a

catena of  decisions that  the punishment  of

imprisonment  for  life  handed  down  by  the

Court means a sentence of imprisonment for

the convict for  the rest of  his life.  [See the

decisions  of  this  Court  in  Gopal  Vinayak

Godse v.  State of  Maharashtra (Constitution 

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Bench), Dalbir Singh v. State of Punjab, Maru

Ram v.  Union of  India (Constitution Bench),

Naib Singh v. State of Punjab, Ashok Kumar v.

Union  of  India,  Laxman  Naskar  v.  State  of

W.B.,  Zahid  Hussein  v.  State  of  W.B.,

Kamalanantha v. State of T.N., Mohd. Munna

v.  Union of  India and C.A.  Pious v.  State of

Kerala.]

76. It is equally well settled that Section 57

of the Penal  Code does not in any way limit

the punishment of imprisonment for life to a

term of twenty years.  Section 57 is only for

calculating fractions of  terms of  punishment

and provides that imprisonment for life shall

be reckoned as equivalent  to imprisonment

for twenty years. (See: Gopal Vinayak Godse

and Ashok Kumar).   The object and purpose

of Section 57 will be clear by simply referring

to Sections 65, 116, 119, 129 and 511 of the

Penal Code.”

44.  Regard being had to this, it is not necessary to refer to 

the  various  sections  of  the  Cr.P.C.  and  the  Penal  Code 

argued before us.   Equally,  Article 20(1) has no manner of 

application as the writ petitioner is not being subjected to a 

penalty greater  than that  which might  have been inflicted 

under  the law in force at  the time of  commission of  the 

offence. 

45. This petition is therefore dismissed.

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46. We  make  it  clear  that  the  law  laid  down  in  this 

judgment,  viz., the right of a limited oral  hearing in review 

petitions where death sentence is given, shall be applicable 

only in pending review petitions and such petitions filed in 

future.  It will also apply where a review petition is already 

dismissed but the death sentence is not executed so far.  In 

such cases,  the petitioners can apply for the reopening of 

their review petition within one month from the date of this 

judgment.   However,  in those cases where even a curative 

petition is dismissed, it would not be proper to reopen such 

matters.  

47. All the writ petitions are disposed of accordingly.

.................................CJI

(R.M. Lodha)

……………………………..J.

(Jagdish Singh Khehar)

……………………………..J.

(A.K. Sikri)

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New Delhi,

2

nd

 September, 2014

……………………………..J.

(Rohinton Fali Nariman)

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Vassu Arora
on 11 September 2014
Published in Criminal Law
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