Topic: M.C. Verghese v. T J. Ponnam

M.C. Verghese v. T J. Ponnam
Equivalent Citations: 1970 Air 1876, 1969 Scr (2) 692 - Bench: Shah, J.C., Ramaswami, V., Grover, A.N. - Citation:  1970 Air 1876,  1969 Scr  (2) 692 - Date of Judgment: 13/11/1968

that if the marriage was subsisting at the time when the communications were made, the bar prescribed by Section 122 will operate.

ACT: Evidence Act (1 of 1872), s. 122--Letters from husband to wife containing defamatory matter of third persons--Husband prosecuted to defamation--Whether letters can be proved against husband--Subsequent declaration of nullity of marriage--If removes the bar against disclosure

HEADNOTE: The first respondent wrote letters to his wife who is the daughter c the appellant. The letters contained defamatory imputations concerning the appellant. The letters were handed over to the appellant and he filed a complaint for defamation against the first respondent. The Magistrate held that a communication between spouses of a matter de (amatory of another did not amount to publication and that no evidence could be given of it under s. 122 of the Evidence Act, 1872, against the first respondent, and discharged him. The Court of Session set aside the order but the High Court restored it. While the appeal against the order of discharge was pending in this Court a decree of nullity of marriage was passed against the first respondent on the ground of his impotency.

HELD: If the appellant sought to support his case only upon the evidence of the wife of the first respondent, 8. 122 of the Evidence Act would be a bar. Further a marriage with a person important at the time of marriage and at the time of institution of proceedings for nullity is under the Indian Divorce Act not ab initio void; it is valid till the decree of nullity is pronounced. Therefore, if the defamation case were to proceed and 'the wife' should appear as a witness to give evidence about the communication made to her by her husband (the first respondent), the communication could not be deposed to unless the first respondent consented because, if the marriage was subsisting at the time when the communication was made the bar prescribed by s. 122 would operate. But the letters were in appellant's possession and were available for being tendered in evidence, and he could prove the letters in any other manner. Therefore, the accused (first respondent) should not have been discharged. [696 H; 697 A--C; 698 A--B]

Rumping v. Director of Public Prosecutions, [1962] 3 All E.R. 256, (H.L.) applied.

CRIMINAL APPELLATE JURISDICTION: Criminal Appeal No. 46 of 1967.

Appeal from the judgment and order dated    November 1, 1966 of the Kerala High Court in Criminal Revision Petition No. 191 of 1966.

Lily Thomas, for the appellant.

W.S. Barlingay and Ganpat Rai, for respondent No. 1. A.G. Pudissery, for respondent No. 2.

The Judgment of the Court was delivered by Shah, J. Rathi daughter of M.C. Verghese was married to T.J. Ponnan. On July 18, 1964, July 25, 1964    and July30, 1964, Ponnan wrote from Bombay letters to Rathi who was then residing with her parents at Trivandrum which it is claimed contained defamatory    imputations concerning Verghese. Verghese then    filed a complaint in    the Court of    the District Magistrate, Trivandrum, against Ponnan charging him with offence of defamation Ponnan submitted    an application raising two preliminary contentions--(1)    that the letters which formed the sole basis of the complaint were inadmissible in evidence as they were barred by law or expressly prohibited by law from disclosure; and (2)    that uttering of a    libel    by a husband to    his wife was    not "publication" under the law of India and hence cannot support a charge for defamation, and prayed for fan order of discharge, and applied that he may be discharged. The    District Magistrate held that a communication by a husband to his wife or by a wife to her husband of a matter defamatory of    another' person does not amount    in law to publication, Since the husband and wife are one in the    eye of the law. In so holding, he relied upon the judgment in Wennhak    v. Morgan and Wife(1). He also held that    the communication was privileged, and no evidence could be given in court in relation to that communication. He accordingly ordered    that Ponnan be discharged under s. 253 (2) Code of Criminal Procedure.

In    a revision application filed by Verghese before    the Court of Session, the order was set    aside    and further enquiry into the complaint was directed. In the view of    the learned    Sessions Judge the doctrine of the common law of England    that a communication by one spouse to another of a matter    defamatory of    another person does not amount to publication has no application in India, and s. 122 of    the Indian Evidence Act does not prohibit proof in the Court by the complainant of the letters written by Ponnan to    his wife.

The case was then carried to the High Court of Kerala in revision. The High Court set aside the order of the Court of Session and restored the order    of the District Magistrate. The High Court held that from the averments made in paragraphs 9 to 11 of the complaint it was clear that the writing of defamatory matter by Ponnan to his    wife Rathi was not in law publication, and that "if the letters written    by Ponnan to his wife cannot be proved in court either    by herself directly or through her father, in whose hands she had    voluntarily placed them, the    imputations therein    fell outside the court's cognizance and no charge under s. 500 Indian Penal Code could be deemed to be    made out". Against (1)[1888] 120.Q.B.D. 635.

the order passed by the High Court discharging Ponnan,    this appeal    is preferred with certificate granted by the    High Court.

It    was assumed throughout these proceedings that    the letters    are defamatory of the complainant. Under    the Indian    penal Code in order that an offence of defamation may be committed there must be making or publication of    any imputation concerning any person by words either spoken or intended to    be read, or by signs or    by visible representations, intending to harm, or knowing or having reason    to believe that such    imputation will harm,    the reputation of    such person. To constitute the    offence of defamation there must therefore be making or publication of an imputation    concerning any person    and the making or publication must be with intent to harm, or knowing or having reason to believe that such imputation will harm, the reputation of such person. Unless there is publication there can be no offence of defamation committed. In    England the rule appears to be    well settled    that except in certain well defined matters. the husband and wife ,are regarded as one and in an action for libel disclosure by the husband of the libel to his wife is not    publication. In Wennhak's case(1) Manisty, J., observed:

"    ...... the    maxim and principle acted on    for centuries is still in existence viz., that as regards    this Case, husband and wife 'are in point of law one person." The learned Judge examined the foundation of the rule    and stated that it was, after, all, a question of public policy or, social policy.

But the rule that husband and wife are one in the eye of law has not been adopted in its full force under our system of law and certainly not in our criminal jurisprudence. In    Queen Empress v. Butch(2) it was held that there is no presumption of law that the wife and husband constitute one person in India for the purpose of the criminal law. If the wife, removing the husband's property from    his house, does so    with dishonest intention, she is guilty of theft. In    Abdul Khadar v. Taib Begum(5) the Madras High Court again held that there is no presumption of law in India that a wife and husband constitute one person for the purpose of criminal law, and therefore the English common law doctrine of absolute privilege cannot prevail in India. It    must be remembered that the    Indian    Penal    Code exhaustively codifies    the law relating to offences    with which it deals and (1) [1888] 20 Q.B.D. 635.

(2) I.L.R. 17 Mad. 401.

(3) A.T.R. 1957 Mad. 339.

695    the rules of the common law cannot be    resorted to for inventing exemptions which are not expressly enacted. In Tiruvengadda Mudali v. Tripurasundari Ammal(1) a Full Bench of the Madras High Court observed that the exceptions to s. 499 I.P. Code must be regarded as exhaustive as to the cases which they purport to cover ,and recourse cannot be had to    the English common law to 'add new    grounds of exception to those contained in the    statute. A person making libelous statements    in his complaint filed in court is not absolutely protected in a criminal proceeding for defamation, for under the Eighth    Exception ,and    the illustration to s. 499 the statements are privileged    only when they are    made in good    faith.    There is therefore authority for the proposition that    in determining    the criminality of an act under the Indian Penal Code the courts will not extend the scope of special exceptions by resorting to the rule peculiar to EngLish common law that the husband and wife are regarded as one.

But    we do not deem it necessary to record any final opinion    on this question because, in    our judgment.    this enquiry    has to be made when the complaint is tried before the Magistrate.

Verghese has complained that he was defamed by the three letters which Ponnan wrote to Rathi Ponnan, however,    says that the letters addressed    by him    to his wife    are not--except with his consent--admissible in    evidence by virtue of s. 122 of the Indian Evidence Act, and since    the only publication pleaded is publication to his wife and    she is prohibited    by law from disclosing    those letters. no offence    of defamation could be made out. So    stated    the proposition is in our judgment, not sustainable. Section 122 of the Indian Evidence Act falls in Ch. IX which deals with evidence of witnesses in proceeding before the court. That section provides:

"No person who is or has been married shall be compelled    to disclose    any communication made to him during marriage by any person to whom he is or has been married;    nor shall be permitted    to disclose any such communication. unless the person    who made it, or his representative in interest, consents,    except    in suits between married persons, or proceedings in which    one married person is prosecuted for any crime committed against the other."
The section consists of two branches--(1) that a married person shall not be compelled to disclose any communication made to him during marriage by his spouse; and (2) that    the married    person shall not except in two special    classes of proceedings be permitted to disclose by giving evidence in court the communication, (1) I.L.R. 49 Mad. 728.

unless    the person who made it, or his representative in interest, consents thereto.

A prima facie case was set up in the complaint by Verghese. That complaint has not been tried and we do    not see how, without recording any evidence, the learned District Magistrate could pass any order discharging Ponnan. Section 122 of the Evidence Act only prevents disclosure in giving    evidence in court of the communication made by    the husband to the wife. If Rathi appears in the witness box to give evidence 'about the communications made to her husband, prima facie the communications may not be permitted to be deposed    to or disclosed unless Ponnan consents. That    does not, however,    mean that no other evidence which is    not barred under s. 122 of the Evidence Act or other provisions of the Act can be given.

In    a recent judgment of the House of Lords    Rumping v. Director of Public Prosecutions(1), Rumping the mate of a Dutch ship was tried for murder committed on board the ship. Part of the evidence for the prosecution ,admitted at    the trial consisted of a letter that Rumping had written to    his wife in Holland which amounted to a confession. Rumping    had written the letter on the day of the killing, and had handed the letter in a closed envelope to a member of the    crew requesting him to post it as soon as the ship arrived at the port outside England. After the appellant was arrested, the member of the crew handed the envelope to the captain of the ship who handed it over to the police. The member of    the crew, the captain and the translator of the    letter    gave evidence at the trial, but the wife    was not called as witness. It was held that the letter    was admissible in evidence. Lord    Reid,    Lord Morris of    Borth-Y-Gest,    Lord Hodson    and Lord Pearce were of the view that at common    law there had never been a separate principle or rule    that communications between a husband and wife during marriage were inadmissible in    evidence on the ground of public policy.    Accordingly except where the spouse to whom    the communication is made is a witness and claims privilege from disclosure under the Criminal Evidence Act. 1898, (of which the terms are similar to s. 122 of the Indian Evidence    Act though not identical), evidence as to communications between husband    and wife during marriage is admissible in criminal proceedings.

The question whether the complainant in this case is an agent of the wife because he has received the letters    from the wife and may be permitted to give evidence is a matter on which no opinion at this stage can    be expressed.    The complainant claims that he has been defamed by the writing of the letters. The letters are in his possession and    are available for being tendered in evidence. We see no reason why inquiry into that complaint should, on the (1) [1962] All E.R. 256.

preliminary contentions raised, be prohibited. If    the complainant seeks to support his case only upon the evidence of the wife of the accused, he may be met with the bar of s. 122 of the Indian Evidence Act. Whether he will be    able to prove the letters in any other manner is a matter which must be left to be determined at the trial 'and cannot be made the subject-matter of an enquiry at this stage. One    more question which was raised by counsel for    the appellant may be briefly referred to.    It was    urged'    that since the matter reached this Court, Rathi has    obtained a decree for nullity of marriage 'against Ponnan on the ground of his    impotency, and whatever bar    existed during    the subsistence of    the marriage cannot now operate to render Rathi an incompetent witness.    But the argument is plainly contrary to the terms of s. 122. If the marriage    was subsisting at the time when the communications    were made, the bar prescribed 'by s. 122 will operate.    In Moss v. Moss(1), it was held that in criminal    cases,    subject to certain    common    law and statutory exceptions, a spouse is incompetent to    give evidence against the other, and    that incompetence continues after a decree absolute for divorce or a decree of nullity (where the marriage annulled was merely    voidable) in respect    of matters arising during coverture.

Counsel for the appellant however urged that the    rule enunciated in Moss's case(1) has no application in India because under ss. 18 & 19 of the Divorce Act no    distinction is made between marriage void and voidable. By s. 18 a husband    or a wife may present a petition for    nullity of marriage:to the appropriate court and the court has under s. 19 power to make the decree on the following grounds:

"(1) that the respondent was    impotent at the time of the marriage 'and at the time of the institution of the suit;
(2) that the parties are    within    the prohibited degrees of consanguinity (whether natural or legal) or affinity; (3 ) that either party was a    lunatic or idiot at    the time of the marriage; (4) that the former husband or wife or either party was living at the time of    the marriage,    and the marriage with    such former husband or wife was then in force.
Nothing in this section shall affect the jurisdiction    of the High Court to make decrees of nullity of marriage (1.) [1963] 2 Q.B.D.

on the ground that the consent of either party was obtained by force or fraud." Marriage with the respondent who was impotent at the time of the marriage or at the time of the institution of the suit is not ab initio void: it is voidable. As stated in Latey on Divorce, 14th Edn., at p. 194, Art. 353: "Where impotence is proved the ceremony of marriage    is void only on the decree absolute of nullity, but then it is void ab initio to ,all intents and purposes'. Such a marriage is valid for all purposes, unless a decree    of nullity is pronounced during the life-time of the parties."

When the letters were written by Ponnan to Rathi,    they were husband and wife. The bar to the admissibility in evidence of communications made during marriage attaches at the time when the communication is made, and    its admissibility will be adjudged in the light of the status at the date and not the status at the date when    evidence is sought to be given in court.

We    are, therefore, of the view that the appeal must be allowed    and the order passed by the High Court    set aside. The proceed Lugs will be remanded for trial to the District Magistrate according to law.

V.P.S. - Appeal allowed.