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Top court glare on leniency

New Delhi, May 5: The Supreme Court today rapped high courts for extreme leniency in certain cases where the offence has been serious or brutal, saying whimsical punishments only served to “guillotine” the fundamental grammar of sentencing.

Justices S.J. Mukhopadhyaya and Dipak Misra said the punishment should be “proportionate”, as they increased the sentence of a man who had chopped off from the wrist the hand of another man in an attack said to have been the fallout of an old enmity.

A sessions judge had sentenced Surajbhan Singh to five years in jail and fined him Rs 2,000 for the 1982 assault on Sumer Singh, while his four accomplices were jailed for three years.

Rajasthan High Court had reduced Surajbhan’s sentence to seven days but enhanced the fine to Rs 50,000. The court granted his friends relief under the Probationers of Offenders Act.

Sumer then appealed to the apex court, which increased Surajbhan’s sentence to rigorous imprisonment for two years. “The gravity of the offence speaks for itself. A young man’s hand has been cut off from the wrist. How the fear psychosis would have reigned in the society at the relevant time does not require Solomon’s wisdom to visualise,” Justice Misra, writing the judgment, said.

“It is difficult to fathom what possible reason the high court could have envisioned or thought of while reducing the sentence to the period already undergone, i.e., seven days for such an offence. Possibly, the high court felt that increase of (the) fine amount would serve the cause of justice and ameliorate the grievance of the victim and pacify the collective cry. We are not inclined to think so.”

The bench said although sentencing was a “matter of discretion”, the discretion “cannot be used… in a fanciful and whimsical manner”. Rather, very strong reasons have to “form the fulcrum for lenient use of the said discretion”.

The apex court said it was the duty of the court to impose an adequate sentence for the protection of society and a legitimate response to the collective conscience. “The paramount principle that should be the guiding laser beam is that the punishment should be proportionate. It is the answer of law to the social conscience….

“While imposing the sentence it is the court’s accountability to remind itself about its role and the reverence for rule of law. It must evince the rationalised judicial discretion and not an individual perception or a moral propensity,” the bench said, adding that if “proper sentence is not awarded, the fundamental grammar of sentencing is guillotined”.

The court said it could not close its eyes to the agony and anguish of the victim and, eventually, to the cry of society. “Therefore, striking the balance, we are disposed to think that the cause of justice would be best subserved if the respondent is sentenced to undergo rigorous imprisonment of two years apart from the fine that has been imposed by the learned trial judge.”

The bench slammed the high courts before wrapping up the case. “Before parting with the case we are obliged, nay, painfully constrained, to state that it has come to the notice of this court that in certain heinous crimes or crimes committed in a brutal manner, the high courts in exercise of the appellate jurisdiction have imposed extremely lenient sentences which shock the conscience,” the apex court said. “It should not be so.”