‘A punishment to be just should have only that degree of severity which is sufficient to deter others.’ It says that punishment should be just that is in proportion to the severity of the crime and should also have a deterrent effect on society. The Doctrine of Rarest of Rare was established in the case of Bachhan v. State of Punjab.
The Supreme Court, in this case, established a doctrine particularly for offences culpable with death to decrease the ambiguity for courts regarding when to go for the highest punishment of the land.
What is the Rarest of Rare Case?
In the Macchi Singh case, the court laid down certain criteria for assessing when a case could fall under the ambit of rarest of rare. The criteria are analyzed as below:
Manner of commission of murder When the murder is committed in an extremely brutal, ridiculous, diabolical, revolting, or reprehensible manner so as to awaken intense and extreme indignation of the community; for instance,
- When the victim’s house is set on fire with the intention to bake him alive.
- When the victim is tortured to inhuman acts in order to bring about his/her death.
- When the body of the victim is mutilated or cut in pieces in a brutal manner.
The motive for the commission of murder When total depravity and cruelty are the motives behind a murder; for instance,
- A hired killer committing murder merely for the sake of a monetary reward.
- A cold-blooded murder incorporating a thoughtful design in order to get control to inherit property or for any other selfish gains.
Socially abhorrent nature of the crime When a murder of a person belonging to one of the backward classes is committed. Cases of bride burning, famously known as dowry deaths, are also covered in this.
The magnitude of the crime when the proportion of the crime is massive, for instance, in cases of multiple murders.
The personality of a victim of murder When the murder victim is an innocent child, a helpless woman or person (due to old age or infirmity), a public figure, etc.
Case review: Before Bachan Singh case
In Jagmohan Singh v. State of Uttar Pradesh, Supreme Court held that India cannot take the risk by experimenting with the abolition of the death penalty but the court can set a clear standard that death penalty will be an exception and not the rule in a sentence.
In Rajendra Prasad v. State of Uttar Pradesh, Justice Krishna Iyer observed that “If the murderous operation of a die-hard criminal jeopardizes social security in a persistent, planned and perilous fashion then his enjoyment of fundamental rights may be rightly annihilated.”
Judgement: The Bachan Singh case
In the landmark case of Bachan Singh v. the State of Punjab, the Honorable Court held that death sentence will be awarded in the ‘rarest of rare’ cases, where the alternative the option of life imprisonment is unquestionably foreclosed.
Case review: After Bachan Singh’s case
In the case of Maneka Gandhi v. Union of India, the Supreme court held that the death penalty is an exceptional punishment and will be awarded only in special cases.
In the landmark judgment of Macchi Singh v. the State of Punjab, the Supreme Court had given 5 heads for aggravating factors which include-
- Manner of commission of murder
- The motive for the commission of murder
- Anti-social or socially abhorrent nature of the crime
- Personality of crime
- Nature of victim of murder
But the court did not take into account the mitigating factors.
The Apex Court did uphold the death penalty awarded to the accused of the Nirbhaya rape and murder case after calling it as “rarest of rare” case and the highest punishment was inflicted on the accused.
Reasons for the formation of the doctrine
The doctrine was formulated to act as a catalyst in the administration of justice as it will guide the future judges and make their work easier.
Earlier, it was completely dependent on the discretion of the judges to decide whether to give death sentences or award life imprisonment in a case. To have control over this unbarred discretion of the judges the doctrine was incorporated. The doctrine tells the judges to take into consideration two important factors while deciding such cases.
The factors are:
- The aggravating factors (factors mentioned in Macchi Singh v. State of Punjab and others)
- The mitigating factors (Poor socio-economic condition, First time offender, Background of the accused, etc.)
- The doctrine was incorporated to give punishments proportionate to the gravity of the crime.
The doctrine if truly enunciated it its right spirit has a huge scope. But the meaning that it has got in the last few decades makes this a though process. The doctrine needs reforms to overcome its unguided nature. The judges need to interpret the doctrine in its right spirit without being moved by their own beliefs. It is an evolutionary process and will take time.
About the Author – Aditya Pratap
Aditya Pratap is a lawyer practising in Mumbai. He argues cases in the Bombay High Court, Sessions and Magistrate Courts, along with appearances before RERA, NCLT and the Family Court. For further information one may visit his website adityapratap.in or view his YouTube Channel to see his interviews. Questions can be emailed to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Cases argued by Aditya Pratap can be viewed here.