This Article is written by Diksha Vohra students of UILS, PANJAB UNIVERSITY CHANDIGARH.
Character of a person is a summary of his past actions, whether good or bad. Character is a continuous act and includes the individual patterns of behavior and characteristics which make up and distinguish one person from another. For instance, A is an honest person, he is good natured or of violent temper, modest etc. These are the traits of character. Character is different from conduct. Conduct is a single act, done on an occasion.
Explanation to Section 55 under Indian Evidence Act, 1872 hereinafter referred to as ‘IEA’, defines character. It states that it includes both reputation and disposition. Reputation means the opinion of society/people about that person. It is a primary measure to prove a person’s character.
Disposition means the habitual behavior of the person, what a person actually is. It includes all the acquired and inherited traits of the person. It also states that the evidence can be given only of general reputation and general disposition and not of particular acts by which reputation or disposition were shown (except in Section 54).
RELEVANCY OF CHARACTER
1. In Civil Cases (Section 52)
As a general rule, in civil cases, a person’s character is irrelevant to show that such persons conduct is predictable or not. That is because if a party/person is being adjudged depending upon his civil actions, in that case the character of his/her does not play any role in this due process of consideration unless the character forms the substance in issue.
- A person charged with negligent driving cannot give evidence of good character for the purpose of showing that according to his character, he cannot drive negligently.
- A is sued for breaking his promise or for wrongful detention of another person’s goods.
Evidence cannot be given that it was likely for him to do so from his character.
This above principle was laid down in the case Attorney General v. Bowman, where the defendant was tried in penal action & not in criminal proceedings, for keeping false weights and for offering to corrupt an officer. He called a witness to testify that he is a man of good character & conduct.
It was held that evidence of character cannot be admitted, as it is a civil suit. It is not a direct prosecution for crime but only for a penalty.
2. In civil cases where Character is Fact in Issue or a Relevant Fact (Exceptions to Section 52)
Character evidence is admissible in the suits, in which trait of character is a material issue and is placed as an issue in the pleadings or when character is a relevant fact.
⮚ When Character is a material issue/fact in issue:
In defamation cases, the character of the plaintiff becomes a fact in issue. When the plaintiff alleges that the defendant has defamed him and damaged his character, the plaintiff’s character becomes a fact in issue as the plaintiff has to prove what his character was before the defamation, and how this act of libel or slander has affected his reputation.
For e.g: In a suit for libel against A, attributing to the bad qualities of B. B can lead the evidence of his character to justify the non-existence of these qualities; or In a suit for libel against B, attributing to the bad qualities of A. B can lead the evidence of character of A to justify the existence of these qualities.
- Custody/Guardianship of child:
In the cases for deciding the custody or guardianship of the child, the character of both parents are facts in issue as it is important to determine the character of the parents in order to decide who had the best interests of the children in mind. Whether the father is of bad character as he is a habitual drinker, has illicit affairs with several women or the mother is of bad influence on the child due to her illicit relations with another man etc, is the character in issue.
In the case Geeta Hariharan v. Reserve Bank of India, the SC while interpreting Section 6(a) of the Hindu Guardianship and Minority Act, 1956 stated that if it could be shown that the father of the child was indifferent to the child then the mother would become the natural guardian. Thus, the character of the father is a fact in issue here as the guardianship of a child will depend on the indifference of the father.
⮚ When Character is a relevant fact:
In civil cases, the fact that the character of any person is such as to affect the amount of damages which he ought to receive is relevant (Section 55). It becomes a relevant fact in order to decide the extent of damages or where the character is to affect the amount of damages. For e.g: in suits for damages against defamation, breach of promise to marry, seduction, adultery etc. or proceedings in divorce court, evidence of character is admissible.
Section 55 read with the provisions of Section 12 of IEA is an exception to the general rule of Section 52. It can be concluded that in the suits where damages are claimed, then any fact (here character), which enables the Court to determine the amount of damages which has to be awarded, is a relevant fact.
For instance, in cases of defamation, seduction or rape, the evidence of the good or bad character of the 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.
⮚ Character evidence for the veracity of witness:
Character evidence can also be used in order to shake the veracity of the witness. As per Section 142 of IEA, the witness may be cross examined in a manner as to impeach his credit by injuring his character.
3. In Criminal cases (Section 53):
According to Section 53 of IEA, the good character of an accused is relevant. The principle upon which good character may be proved is that it affords a presumption against the commission of crime. The innocence or criminality of an accused can be judged by basing on his character. However, character evidence is weak evidence and it cannot outweigh the positive and conclusive proof that a man is guilty. For it to have persuasive value, corroboration is imperative.
For e.g: Murder is committed in such circumstances that one of the two must be murderers. One person is a habitual offender, robber, notorious and has lawless habits. Other people have refinement and delicacy. Evidence of good character of other accused person is admissible.
In the case Habib Muhammad v. State of Hyderabad, SC held that in criminal proceedings, a character of man is often a matter of importance in explaining his conduct and in judging his innocence or criminality.
- Section 53-A: Evidence of character is not relevant in certain cases
Section 53-A IEA was inserted with the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act, 2013, which states that the evidence of character or previous sexual appearances is not relevant in a prosecution for certain cases mentioned in the provision which are offences:
- Under sections 354,354-A, 354B, 354C, 354D, 376, 376A-376E of IPC or
- Where the question of consent is in issue. (also includes an attempt of the offence).
Then in the following cases, the evidence of the character of the victim or previous sexual appearance with any person will not be relevant on the issue of such consent or quality of consent.This section was inserted in the aftermath of the Nirbhaya Gangrape case, with an aim to prevent character assassination of the victim in the courts.
By virtue of Section 53-A, the defence is debarred from leading any evidence or asking such questions in cross-examination which may be suggestive of the victim’s past sexual experience with any other person. It is aimed at protecting the victim in case of offences as mentioned in the provision.
4. Previous Bad Character is irrelevant, except in reply (Section 54)
Evidence of good character of the accused is always relevant, but in criminal proceedings the evidence of bad character of the accused is irrelevant. The reasoning behind this is that such evidence of bad character might cause prejudice in the minds of judges which isn’t desirable for the principle of fair trial. The latter part of the provision prescribes that evidence of bad character of the accused becomes relevant if the evidence of his good character has been given.
Evidence of bad character becomes relevant in the following circumstances –
- When the accused has adduced the evidence that he is of good character, then the prosecution can lead the evidence in that effect to show his bad character.
- Where the bad character of the accused is itself a fact in issue, then evidence of bad character is relevant (Explanation 1 of Section 54).
As under Section 110 of CrPC, if a person by habit is a robber, house-breaker or dangerous to the public at large, then in an enquiry under Section 110 CrPC, the character is in question and thus relevant. The evidence that accused had committed similar criminal acts previously is admissible, to decide upon the issue whether the act is intentional or accidental.
- The previous conviction of accused is relevant as evidence of Bad character (Explanation 2 of Section 54)
As under Section 71 of IPC, if the previous conviction of the accused is proved, he is punished with an enhanced punishment.
- Ishani Shekhar, Relevancy of Character Evidence, Criminal Law Review, (June 13,2020)
- Samhitha Sharath Reddy & P. Vashishtan, Character in Evidence Law, ISSN: 2581-8465.
- Character as evidence under the Indian law, My Advo,(April 21,2018) https://www.myadvo.in/blog/character-as-evidence-under-the-indian-law/
- Character evidence and the role it plays in Court, Law Teacher,(July 17,2019) https://www.lawteacher.net/free-law-essays/judicial-law/character-evidence-and-the-role-it-plays-in-court-law-essay.php
- Anushka, Character Evidence, Law Times Journal,(March 27,2019) https://lawtimesjournal.in/character-evidence/
- Attorney General vs. Bowman,(1791), 2 Bos, & P.532
- Vasanthi v. Bakthavatchalu,AIR 1993 Mad 322.
- Geeta Hariharan vs. Reserve Bank of India, AIR 1999 2 SCC 228.
- Sardar Shardul Singh Caveeshar v. State of Maharashtra, 1957 AIR 747.
- Habib Muhammad vs. State of Hyderabad, 1954 AIR 51.