I was given charge of the Criminal Bench in recognition of my experience of conducting criminal cases as a lawyer and a Sessions Judge. In that area, my principle was of justice tempered with mercy. If a mother’s heart did make itself present in the judgments of the woman judge that is neither surprising nor a cause of complaint. Modern thinking about punishment and the aims of punishment stress the need to convince the wrongdoer of the seriousness of his crime. And that also means, offering a chance to live a life without repeating the crime, of course.
In murder cases, I did not hesitate to hand out the death penalty, and to convert life terms to death penalty, in crimes that were premediated, committed under evil influences and carried out in beastly and wicked manner. Not only that, sometimes, in such cases, I was even more stubborn than male judges. But I was also diligent about lowering punishment in cases in which the crime of taking the life of another was committed in response to immediate provocation, under quick passion, or in self-defense. I was aided by the fact that relaxing punishment in such cases by allowing the call of conscience to show some mercy would not make anyone try to destablise the judgment by blaming the woman judge. Also, in cases of robbery, cases of mild food adulteration etc. I would take into account the financial position of the accused and relax the severity of punishment.
I do not intent to speak about the many cases that I heard during my term at the High Court. But let me recall one or two just as examples of the attitude of the woman judge towards wrongdoers and punishment.
A case of bribery involving a sepoy at the Ernakulam hospital was brought to my court. Apparently, he took two rupees from a patient in a queue in front of the doctor’s room and then allowed the patient to break the queue and meet the doctor out of turn. Though legally this was a bribe, when the financial circumstances of the bribe-giver and bribe-taker were assessed, I considered this a mere act of charity. The Sessions Court had convicted him with a six-month jail term. The accused was too poor to find a lawyer for himself. The lawyer appointed for him by the court would do more harm than good. Seeing the judgment that would strip this miserably-poor person of his job, even, I was seized by the desire to save him somehow. In a world in which people in high places take big sums from the poor as bribes and continue the same industry never caught by a court, it was not justice to brand the two rupees taken by that insect-like human being who lived a hard life unable to meet even the needs of his family with his negligible salary, and to throw the cockroach into his gruel : my conscience told me this. But I need not tell you the consequences of adding such principles into the text of a high court judgment. I had all the records send to my house even as I heard the case and I examined them thoroughly. I considered the weaker sides of the evidence against the accused, blew them up, added all sorts of frills and ornaments to them, and finally declared that the crime was not proven beyond doubt — and set aside the penalty. When the accused was asked about what he had to say, he said that he was innocent and that if this judgment was not quashed he would lose his job, and so the high court should reexamine all the papers before coming to a judgment. I got the judgment typed and retyped during the lunch hour and when I got back on the Bench and declared the judgment acquitting the man and setting aside the Sessions Court judgment. The poor man who was trembling bowed low, saluted with gratitude and affection, and left the box with a full heart.
But I was careful not to let others brag about how men who committed crimes could dupe women and get away with them. So I sent a message to the man through the court sepoy that he should leave only after meeting me after the court’s work was over for the day. I called him and said, “I know that you took that money in violation of the law, but spared you seeing your helplessness, that’s all. Make sure that you never repeat this. If at any time you feel very hungry, you can come to my home, which is very near the hospital and I will make sure that you have a meal. Otherwise, that is, if you repeat this, you will lose your job and no one will be able to help you.” He gave his word that he would obey me and left. The advise seems to have hit the target. In my knowledge there has never been any further complaint about him.
There are a few more cases in which I have surrendered to my conscience and set aside punishments or when that was not possible, handed over punishments that were nominal. Those are mostly cases to do with suicide attempts, and those according to IPC Section 309. In my view, the attempt to suicide is not a crime at all. When I was the District Judge, I had the occasion to hear many cases under Section 309. In all such cases, the accused did not have the resources to hire their own lawyer. I took special effort to help the young lawyers deputed by the court to them. It was I who mostly cross-examined the witnesses. Because suicide attempts are mostly done privately, the witnesses found by the police were mostly bogus. It was a favorite preoccupation of mine to make them go wrong in the cross-examination.