The entire testimony of a witness cannot be discarded merely because part of it was found to be false

The entire testimony of a witness cannot be discarded merely because part of it was found to be false

“Honesty pays, but it doesn’t seem to pay enough to suit some people”- F. M. Hubbard

The Latin phrase ‘falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus’, though popular in the eighteenth century, has been criticized in contemporary courts of law all over the world. It literally translates to ‘false in one thing, false in everything’. At common law, it’s the principle that states that a witness who has falsely testified in one matter is not credible enough to be believed in any other matter.

On 21st February 2019, the Supreme Court restated that the said principle has no application in India when the case of Mahendran vs. State of Tamil Nadu came forth.

The case – in brief

An appeal was made by the accused: if a part of the testimony of a witness is found to be unreliable or false, the other part of the statement cannot be used to convict the appellant. In response to this, the two-Judge bench of the Supreme Court, consisting of Justice Sanjay Kishan and Justice Hemant Gupta, said,

“The maxim “falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus” has not received general acceptance nor has this maxim come to occupy the status of rule of law. It is merely a rule of caution.”

The appeal arose out of a common judgement by the Madurai Bench (Madras High Court) and the Supreme Court dismissed it, clearly stating that the entire testimony cannot be discarded on the basis of discrepancies with a part of it.

The general Principle

In arriving at its judgment, the bench relied on the 2002 judgement in Gangadhar Behera vs. State of Orissa, wherein it was observed,

“Even if the major portion of evidence is found to be deficient, in case residue is sufficient to prove the guilt of an accused, notwithstanding acquittal of the number of other co-accused persons, his conviction can be maintained.”

To talk about the appreciation of evidence, the general aphorism is to take each word of the testimony of the witness in consideration, even if a part of the evidence of the witness is found to be false. The Court understands its duty of winnowing and separating the valuable from the trash.

A similar judgement, and the application of a similar principle can be found in the 2013 case of Naresh Kumar vs State. Naresh was accused of mugging and killing a citizen Mahesh and injuring the victim’s nephew Ashu. Here, a few of Ashu’s statements were found to be unbelievable. However, the Court refrained from addressing each of his statements as false and non-credible.

In 2017, Babu and others vs State of U.P. saw a like case with a similar principle put to use.

Evidential value of contradictions and false testimony

In Appabhai vs. State of Gujarat (AIR 1984 S.C. 964), the Apex court observed that minor discrepancies should not be given importance while dealing with evidence and testimonies. Apart from all other inconsistencies and contradictions, the court emphasized those due to change in perceptions, observations and exaggerations. Lapse of memory is also to be excused. The court went on to state,

“When a doubt arises in respect of certain facts alleged by such witness, the proper course is to ignore that fact only unless it goes into the root of the matter to demolish the entire prosecution story. The witnesses these days go on adding embellishments to their version, perhaps, for the fear of their testimony being rejected by the Court. The Courts, however, should not disbelieve the evidence of such witnesses altogether if they are otherwise trustworthy.”

The court goes on to explain that the evidence may be overlooked, but must not be treated so by compulsion. After separation of grain from the chaff, if the evidence is not enough to convict the accused, the accused can be very well be let go of. Clearly, past judgments have indicated it to be the best practice to analyze every statement of a witness, no matter how many turn out to be false. The urge to lie on oath can be strong for some, but it does not mean that his/her conscience would never allow them to go back on the right track and value their oath solemnly.

As compelling as it may sound to ignore statements of a witness proven false, the same is not encouraged in the judicial space. The ‘falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus’ doctrine, therefore, has no effect on the court of law, does not have the status of rule of law and lacks acceptance all over the country.