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Hostile Witness: Evidentiary Value And Legal Ramifications

When a witness makes a statement that goes against the interests of the party who called them, they are considered hostile. This occurs when the party's own witness denies giving a statement in their Favor in court. There are various reasons why a witness may become hostile, such as being threatened by the other party or fearing for their safety if they testify against the accused. These reasons instil a sense of fear in the witness's mind.

Section 154 of the Indian Evidence Act, 1872 addresses the concept of a hostile witness. This section allows the court to grant permission for a party to cross-examine their own witness if they have become hostile.

The general rule is that a party can only cross-examine witnesses from the opposite party. However, there is an exception to this rule. If a witness becomes hostile, the party may cross-examine their own witness with the court's permission.

It is within the court's discretion to decide whether to allow a party to cross-examine their own witness. The court will only grant permission if it is satisfied that it is necessary for the interests of justice and a fair trial.

The hostile behaviour of an eyewitness during a legal proceeding can trigger a series of events that can significantly impact the outcome of a case. Eyewitness testimony is often considered the most convincing type of evidence, as it provides firsthand accounts of events. However, when a witness becomes hostile, their credibility is called into question, casting doubt on the reliability of their testimony and potentially altering the course of the case.

Understanding Hostile Witness:

To fully grasp the consequences of a hostile witness, it is crucial to understand what constitutes one. A hostile witness is typically someone who exhibits animosity or antagonism towards the party that called them to testify. This hostility can manifest in different ways, such as giving evasive responses, contradicting previous statements, or outright refusing to cooperate with questioning. Hostility can arise from various reasons, including fear, pressure, prejudice, or a desire to conceal the truth.

Impact on Credibility:

The primary impact of a hostile witness is the damage to their credibility. In a courtroom, a witness's credibility is crucial, as it directly influences the weight given to their testimony by the judge or jury. When a witness displays hostility, it raises doubts about their truthfulness, reliability, and intentions. Jurors may question whether the witness has a hidden agenda or is attempting to manipulate the proceedings. As a result, the testimony of a hostile witness may be met with scepticism and given less weight during deliberations.

Effect on Prosecution and Defence Strategies:

The effects of a hostile witness on prosecution and defence strategies can vary depending on the case and the role of the witness. In the prosecution's case, a hostile eyewitness can have a significant negative impact, especially if their testimony is crucial in proving guilt. Eyewitness accounts are vital for prosecutors in providing a firsthand narrative of the alleged crime and supporting other evidence presented in court. When a witness becomes hostile, it can cause the prosecution's case to unravel as they face the challenge of overcoming the witness's lack of credibility.

However, for the defence, a hostile witness can present both challenges and opportunities. Defence attorneys may use the witness's hostility to their advantage by undermining their credibility and casting doubt on the prosecution's version of events. By pointing out inconsistencies or contradictions in the witness's testimony, the defence can create doubt in the minds of the jury and weaken the prosecution's case. Nevertheless, defence attorneys must be careful not to alienate the jury or come across as overly aggressive in their cross-examination of the witness.

Strategies for Addressing Hostility:

When confronted with a hostile witness, attorneys must adjust their strategies to effectively navigate the situation. Prosecutors may try to rehabilitate the witness through redirect examination, where they aim to clarify or reinforce key points of the witness's testimony. By addressing the underlying reasons for the witness's hostility and eliciting more cooperative responses, prosecutors can mitigate the damage caused by the witness's demeanour.

Defence lawyers can use various strategies, such as impeachment and confrontation, to dispute the credibility of a witness. Impeachment entails presenting the witness with previous contradictory statements or evidence that contradicts their testimony. This can reveal inconsistencies or lies in the witness's version of events, potentially weakening the prosecution's argument. Confrontation, on the other hand, involves directly questioning the witness's intentions, prejudices, or trustworthiness through rigorous cross-examination.

Impact on Jury Perception:

The demeanour of a witness, specifically the display of hostility, can have a significant impact on how the jury perceives them. The instructions given to jurors include assessing a witness's credibility based on their demeanour, consistency, and overall demeanour. If a witness appears hostile, it may lead jurors to believe that they are being dishonest, biased, or uncooperative. This can result in the credibility of their testimony being questioned, which can affect the weight it holds in the deliberation process.

However, the way in which jurors react to a hostile witness varies depending on their personal biases, past experiences, and interpretations of the evidence presented. Some jurors may sympathize with the witness and attribute their hostility to external factors such as intimidation or coercion. Others may view the witness's behaviour as a deliberate attempt to hinder the justice process or conceal the truth. Ultimately, the impact of a hostile witness on jury perception depends on the persuasiveness of the attorneys' arguments and the strength of the evidence presented in court.

Legal Ramifications for the Witness:

In addition to impacting the case's outcome, hostile behaviour can have serious legal consequences for the witness. As perjury laws dictate, witnesses are obligated to testify honestly while under oath, and providing deceitful or misleading testimony can lead to criminal charges. If it is determined that a witness wilfully lied or misrepresented facts while testifying, they may face severe repercussions such as perjury charges, fines, or even imprisonment.

Furthermore, witnesses who refuse to cooperate with the court or openly defy judicial orders may be held in contempt of court. Depending on the severity of the offence and the discretion of the presiding judge, contempt of court can result in penalties such as fines, sanctions, or imprisonment. By disregarding their duty to testify truthfully or violating the rules of the court, hostile witnesses not only undermine the integrity of the legal process but also put themselves at risk of facing legal consequences for their actions.

Long term Implications:
The consequences of a witness turning hostile have far-reaching effects that go beyond the immediate outcome of a case, and can significantly impact the criminal justice system. Hostile witnesses not only undermine public trust in the reliability of eyewitness testimony, but also raise concerns about wrongful convictions, miscarriages of justice, and the overall integrity of the legal process. As a result, leaders, legal experts, and advocacy groups may call for reforms aimed at improving witness protection, strengthening the collection of forensic evidence, and implementing measures to prevent witness tampering or coercion.
Court Judgments:
  • The Supreme Court Bench consisting of Justices M R Shah and B V Nagarathna (July, 2022) reiterated in the case of Malti Sahu and Another v. Rahul and Another that evidence of a hostile witness can be considered to the extent, it supports the case of the prosecution.
  • The Supreme Court in the case of Satpal v. Delhi Administration (1975) ruled that the decision to label a witness as hostile by the prosecution does not render their testimony completely void.
  • The Supreme Court in the case of Krishna Chander v. State of Delhi held that the mere fact that a witness is declared hostile by a party calling him and allowed to be cross-examined does not make him an unreliable witness so as to exclude his evidence from consideration altogether.
  • In the case of Raja v. State of Karnataka, the Supreme Court ruled that the evidence of a hostile witness in all eventualities ought not stand effaced altogether and that the same can be accepted to the extent found dependable on a careful scrutiny.
  • In the case of Sidhartha Vashisht the court highlighted the glaring defects in the system like non-recording of the statements correctly by the police and the retraction of the statements by the prosecution witness due to intimidation, inducement and other methods of manipulation.
In summary, when a witness becomes hostile during legal proceedings, it introduces numerous complications and uncertainties that can greatly influence the outcome of the case. This includes damaging the witness's credibility, influencing the jury's perception, and shaping the strategies of both the prosecution and defence.

As lawyers navigate this complex situation, they must carefully balance their duty to advocate for their clients with ethical considerations, upholding the values of fairness, impartiality, and justice in the pursuit of the truth. Section 193 of the IPC imposes punishment for giving false evidence but is seldom invoked, as it is very difficult to prove that someone is giving false evidence particularly when allegations persist against some police officers of recording the statements under section 161 CrPC without examining the witness and sometimes recording the statements as per their own wishes even after examining them. Further, a witness cannot be prosecuted for mere inconsistencies in his statement.

Written By: Md.Imran Wahab, IPS, IGP, Provisioning, West Bengal
Email: [email protected], Ph no: 9836576565 

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