Updated: Nov 11, 2022
Before we delve into the relevancy of character of an accused, let us first understand the meaning of character, and what the meaning therefore entails in criminal jurisprudence.
The word ‘Character’
The term ‘character’ has not been described in Indian law. The Cambridge dictionary defines conduct as a particular combination of qualities that make a person different from others. Honesty, good-natured, modest, violent temper, etc. are all traits of character.
REPUTATION AND DISPOSITION
Explanation of this section states that the term character, which is used in Sections 52, 53, 54 and 55 includes both reputation and disposition.
Disposition is often referred to as what a person is in a person’s reality. A person’s inherent qualities which he had obtained through education, upbringing or any material condition in life is called disposition. A bad reputed person may have a good disposition.
Reputation is often referred to as the general estimation of a person. It is what other people think about that individual. It is to be noted the evidence of those who do not know the individual but have heard of his reputation is not admissible in court.
Illustration :) In the show ‘Suits’, the character Harvey Specter had a reputation of an arrogant and selfish individual whereas he had a disposition of a highly confident, self-motivated, practical thinker and focused individual. Both of these things combined defined the character of Harvey Specter.
Section 55 of the Indian Evidence Act provides that the term ‘conduct’ includes both reputation and disposition. It is normally established that reputation is the general opinion about an individual in the eyes of the others whereas disposition is how that person is in real and what are his inherent qualities.
Evidence of character is irrelevant in civil cases
Section 52 of the Indian Evidence Act provides that in civil cases, a fact pertaining to the character of an individual is not relevant. It lays the principle that the character of a party as a piece of evidence can’t be used to manifest that conduct attributed to him is probable or improbable.
‘A’, a businessman is charged with fraud.
In this case, no evidence of the fact can be treated as relevant which states that he is an honest man i.e. the character is such that he can never commit fraud.
Neither can the opposite party present evidence of the fact that A’s character had been so trickery that he must have committed the fraud.
The reasons behind the irrelevance are that a case has to be decided based on the facts of the case and not the character of the parties. Evidence of conduct doesn’t just delay the proceedings but also hampers and impairs the mind of the judge. In civil cases, previous convictions of the accused person are irrelevant.
Exception to·Section 55
Section 55 of the Evidence Act provides that in civil cases, evidence of the good or bad character of the person that is to receive the amount of damages is relevant. The character of the original plaintiff is relevant.
When the character of the party is itself a fact in issue then the evidence pertaining to the character of that party is relevant.
Evidence of previous good character is relevant in criminal cases
Unlike civil cases where the character is irrelevant, in criminal cases it is relevant. Section 53 of The Indian Evidence Act provides that in criminal cases, the good character of the accused person is relevant. The reason behind this is the basic human psychology that a person of good character will not generally resort to a criminal act. If goodness is proved it helps in a presumption of non-commission of the offence by that individual.
Evidence of good character is always admissible. In a doubtful case, it may be used to tilt the balance in favor of the accused but in a case where there is positive evidence of guilt of the accused then the good character cannot outweigh the positive evidence. It depends on the discretion of the court that how much weight the evidence of the good character has to be given while deciding the case.
In the case of Habeeb Mohammad v. State of Hyderabad, the Supreme Court held that in criminal proceedings, the character of the accused can help in determining the innocence or guilt of the accused. It can help in either making him suspicious or free from all the suspicions. Accused is allowed to prove general good character in the question of punishment.
Previous bad character not relevant (except in Reply)
According to Section 54 of the Indian Evidence Act, evidence pertaining to the fact that the accused has a bad character is not relevant in criminal cases. In other words, the prosecution cannot present evidence of the accused’s bad character as a part of the main case.
There are certain exceptions to this section-
When the accused has submitted any evidence of his good character, in such a case to rebut, the prosecution can present evidence pertaining to the bad character of the accused.
Explanation 1 to Section 54 provides that when the character is itself a fact in issue then evidence of bad character can be submitted.
In the case of B. Vasanthi v. Bakthavatchalu, the characters of both the plaintiff and the defendant were facts in issue and the court considered evidence of the character of both to decide in the best interest, the custody of the children.
Bad character isn’t defined in Indian law, but it amounts to the general meaning as interpreted by the society. Explanation 2 of section 54 provides that evidence showing any previous conviction is also relevant as evidence of bad character in criminal cases.
According to Section 71 of the Indian Penal Code, any person who is already a previous convict should be sentenced a longer term of imprisonment than that is awarded ordinarily.
Character as affecting Damages: Section 55
Section 55 of the Indian Evidence Act states that in cases of civil nature, the character of the person who is ought to receive the amount of damages is relevant. This section is an exception to Section 52 mentioned above. The evidence pertaining to the good or bad character of the accused is irrelevant whereas evidence of the good or bad character of the victim is relevant.
For instance, in cases of seduction or rape or defamation, the evidence of the good or bad character of the original plaintiff is relevant to decide the amount of damages that the plaintiff is ought to receive. This is generally used to reduce the amount of damages.
There are different instances as to the importance of the relevancy of the character of a person accused, varies in civil proceedings as well as criminal proceedings, and the Indian Evidence Act has provided various instances of its importance in such proceedings, and instances when such character can be positively and negatively utilised.