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Critical Analysis of the Standing Nuances of Circumstantial Evidence in Criminal proceedings


Evidence: Its concept and furcations

Don't leave inferences to be drawn when evidence can be presented.

-Richard Wright

the Concept

Evidence has procured an insurmountable extent of importance in the Criminal justice system all across the globe. The Indian legal system also gives such a. altar to this very important concept which has various facets of furcations within its meaning. The contriving of proof for the accusal of the delinquents is in fact based on this very intricate system of evidence collection and assessment. Thus before analyzing one of those facets of evidence, it is vital to understand the term itself.

The term Evidence has been under section 3 of the Indian Evidence Act (Hereinafter known as the Act). The word has been derived from the Latin word ‘ēvidēnt’ which means ‘obvious.’ Section 5 of the Act illustrates the basic requirement that is to be fulfilled for a piece of evidence to be held admissible: “Facts having whose relevancy has been declared and possess rational probative value.” Pretermiting the jargon, ‘evidence’ means anything by which an matter of fact which is being alleged is either proved or disproved. Anything that facilitates making the thing under question evident to the court is evidence.

The Furcations

Evidence, as previously stated has various facets to it the meaning of whose can be mould in a variety of ways. Firstly, the division may be adumbrated via the definition provided under Section 3 of the Act.

According to it, evidence means and includes all statements that permits or requires to be made before the court by the witnesses regarding any matter of fact which is under inquiry, and these are called as Oral Evidence. The second part talks about all documents including the electronic records, which are produced before the examination of court and there, distinguished from the oral testimonies, are known as Documentary Evidence.

Oral Evidence has been mentioned under Section 59 and Section 60 of the Act whereas Documentary Evidence is under Section 61 and Section 62. Documentary Evidence also includes Primary Evidence as well as the Secondary Evidence.

Now second mode of bifurcation is done as: Direct and Indirect circumstantial evidence. Direct evidence is evidence of a fact based on a witness's personal knowledge or observation of that fact. A person's guilt of a charged crime may be proven by direct evidence if, standing alone, that evidence satisfies a jury beyond a reasonable doubt of the person's guilt of that crime.

It explicitly establishes the assertions made by the party without needing any kind of supplementation and or interference to form connection between various facts.

On the other hand, Circumstantial evidence is direct evidence of a fact from which a person may reasonably infer the existence or nonexistence of another fact. A person's guilt of a charged crime may be proven by circumstantial evidence, if that evidence, while not directly establishing guilt, gives rise to an inference of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. This circumstantial evidence is under the scope of deliberation here.

Circumstantial Evidence in Criminal proceedings

In India, the term circumstantial evidence was first used by Sir James Stephen, stating circumstantial evidence to be facts that are relevant to the other fact, whose existence can prove by the existence of other fact.

The concept of circumstantial evidence has evolved through the evolution of interpretation of statutes and judicial interpretation.

Due to the reason that circumstantial evidence involves drawing of inferences the facts upon which the inference of guilt is drawn must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt must be the only one that can be drawn from the facts in a fairly and reasonable manner such that the evidence excludes beyond a reasonable doubt every reasonable hypothesis of innocence.

Thus Circumstantial evidence which is at times considered as identical in natures with direct evidence, may be distinguished from the same by the fact that direct evidence is intended evidence applicable directly to the fact which forms the subject of inquiry where as circumstantial evidence although equally direct in its nature, but, as its name imports, it is direct evidence of a minor fact or facts, incidental to or usually connected with some other fact as its accident, and from which such other fact is inferred.

Suppose for example: A witness deposes that he saw A. inflict injury on B which caused B to die instantly. This is a case of direct evidence. Whereas in a case where C. dies of poisoning and D who is proved to have habour a malice against him is known to have purchased poison seen carrying it in a bag which D’s company produces and several of it are found in D’s home but not the poison. The evidence of these facts is direct but the facts themselves are indirect and circumstantial, as applicable to the inquiry whether a murder has been committed and whether it was committed by D. The judgment in such a case is essentially deductive and inferential.

Judicial Outlook on Circumstantial evidence in Proceedings

The present contextual understanding of the role of circumstantial evidence in criminal proceedings has in fact developed through the plethora of landmark judicial decision sthat have been presented in this regard. In the case of Bodh Raj v. State of Jammu & Kashmir, the Hon’ble Court enumerated some of the most crucial points that have to be fulfilled for a conviction to be solely based on circumstantial evidence. They are:

  • Circumstances from which guilt is established are required to be built up immovably. In other words, should be proved and impenetrable

  • Circumstances should retain moral certainty and there should be no scope for any other explanation

  • All other hypothesis should be excluded except that one that is required to be proved

  • Circumstances should be conclusive in nature forming a link between the criminal and commission of the offence

In the case of Siddharth Vashisht alias Manu Sharma v. State of NCT of Delhi, the admissibility of the circumstantial evidence was brought under question and in the pursual of the same the Supreme Court resonated the same line of thought, stating that the events around the murder formed a chain of impenetrable evidence pointing towards the guilt of the accused. The presence of the accused at the crime scene which had been established through several witness testimonies, the circumstantial evidence where the vehicles and cartridges were connected to the accused and his conduct after the crime, wherein he absconded for a short period; all pointed to the fact that he was guilty beyond reasonable doubt.

In the judgment of Khem Karan v State of U.P, the court stated that:

“If all the circumstances and the evidence point towards the guilt of the accused and there is no possibility of any other alternative hypothesis then in such a situation only the accused can be convicted solely on the basis of circumstantial evidence.”

Admissibility of Circumstantial evidence

The admissibility of Circumstantial evidence thus can be understood with the judicial intent that was showcased in the essential elements numbered above. Now this line of understanding was accepted by a plethora of other legal pronouncements in India. The Supreme Court in Sathya Narayan v State opined that in specific cases it is conceivable where no immediate proof or observer is accessible, in such a circumstance the court can grant conviction exclusively on the premise of circumstantial proof if the accompanying five standards are connected.

The court thus proceeded on to enumerating five conditions just like how entailed under the Bodh Raj case, the essence of which may be summed up as:

“The conditions from which the finish of blame is to be drawn ought to be completely built up. The explanations so settled ought not to be clarified on some other conceivable theory aside from that the charged is blameworthy. The conditions ought to be of a decisive sort and propensity. There must be a chain of confirmation as to not leave any sensible ground for the acquittal of the charged.”

For the circumstantial evidence to sustain conviction, the evidence should be cogently and firmly established.

Therefore, looking at the above criteria for admitting a piece of evidence to the Court, one can conclude that Circumstantial evidence can be sole basis for a conviction, if circumstances establish the chain of events leading to the guilt of the accused and commission of the crime without other possibilities. The Court should be satisfied that the circumstances complete the chain of events and prove the guilt of the accused beyond reasonable doubt.

Moreover, all the circumstances should indicate towards the guilt of the accused and should be inconsistent with his innocence. The onus was on the prosecution to prove that the chain is complete and the infirmity of lacuna in prosecution cannot be cured by false defense or plea. The chain of events must make sure that no other conclusion or inference apart from the guilt of the accused can be drawn. There is no inherent requirement to provide proof of motive, if the link between the accused and commission of the offence cannot be broken, it is immaterial to establish motive.

The doctrine of Last seen in case of Circumstantial Evidence

The last scene doctrine, in common parlance, means: “the law presumes that the person last seen with the deceased before his death was responsible for his death, and the accused is expected to provide an explanation of what happened.”

However a circumstance leading to “last seen together” does not always lead up to the conclusion that it was the accused who has committed the crime. If the circumstances are limited to just “last seen together” devoid further corroboration, conviction cannot be based on the said assertion. The doctrine of “last seen together” shifts the onus onto the accused to establish his innocence. Thus, last seen together is not a conclusive proof establishing guilt, it is imperative to look at surrounding circumstances such as victim relationship, history of hostility, weapon recovery, relationship between the victim and the accused among others. The proximity between the time of death and last seen together is essential to conclude that the accused and deceased were last seen together without the probability of other persons coming in between exists.

Importance of Conduct while ascertaining the evidence

Conduct of the accused secures a substantial role in corroborating or establishing circumstantial evidence. Derailed conduct of the accused such as absconding, inability to provide explanation, inability to disclose location during the commission of offence, providing false alibis, all lead up to a degree of suspicion in a reasonable mind and destroys the presumption of innocence is a relevant factor in establishing guilt and building the chain of events.

Suppose for sake of an illustration After the murder of A, the prime accused B suddenly disappeared as if to avoid arrest would simply point to an inconsistent behavious that may be expected from an innocent man in such a situation, thus, increasing the presumption of guilt.

In such cases, if there is the absence of any direct evidence, a person can be convicted on the basis of circumstantial evidence alone if the conditions mentioned above are satisfied

Section 106 of the Act also comes within the picture while dealing with circumstantial evidence. This section deals with the burden of proving a fact within the special knowledge of a particular person. When any fact is especially within the knowledge of any person, the burden of proving that fact is upon him.

For example, A does an act. The circumstances are such that the reasonable inference is that he did the act with a particular intention. If A wants to show that he did the act with a different intention then the burden is upon him, for A’s intention being a psychological fact and within A’s special knowledge, under the section, the burden is upon him.

If facts within the special knowledge of the accused are not satisfactorily explained by the accused it would be a factor against him, though by itself it would not be conclusive about his guilt. It would be relevant while considering the totality of the circumstantial evidence. Although this section should be liberally construed.

Moral Certainty

Regarding the aspect of Moral Certainty the American Juridicature has opined that: “While it is not necessary that the words 'moral certainty' be used, when the evidence is circumstantial the jury should be instructed in substance that it must appear that the inference of guilt is the only one that can fairly and reasonably be drawn from the facts, and that the evidence excludes beyond a reasonable doubt every reasonable hypothesis of innocence.”

Thus one circumstance by itself may not unerringly point to the guilt of the accused. It is the cumulative result of all the circumstances which could matter.

Thus, there must be a chain of evidence where no reasonable ground is left for a conclusion which is relevant with the innocence of the accused and it must be such as to show that, it is within all human possibility; the act must have been done by the accused.

In Laxman Naik v State of Orissa the conviction and sentence of death supported on the basis of circumstantial evidence which presented a continuous and complete chain of events which lead to the rape and murder of a seven-year-old daughter of the brother of the accused.

Slipping stones involved when using Circumstantial Evidence

The process of considering circumstantial evidence comes with its own set of instances where the procedure so adopted gives rise to a judicial fallacy, that is, a way for the procedure to go wrong. While noting any such evidence it must be kept in mind that the inference of guilty should be the only reasonable inference from the facts.

Conclusions must not be hastily reached. The inference one wishes to draw probably by tendering other forms of circumstantial evidence because the truth of the matter is the more one can build various circumstantial points, the more strong propositions can be proven. Circumstantial evidence can add up and become a powerful tool in the evidentiary reasoning process.

The Conundrum between Direct or Circumstantial Evidence

The conundrum sometimes raises its head in the question of superiority between both these forms of evidences. The notion of credibility crops up stating that witnesses may lie but circumstances never do, thereby implying that circumstantial evidence is superior to direct evidence.

Well, while bearing in mind that such a statement is not being put on an equitable scale as we are comparing incommensurable things, this must also betaken into account that credibility depends on the witness' inherent ability to perceive, remember and relate; on his ability and desire to tell the truth; and on the setting in which the event occurs and which affects the witness' ability to perceive and remember. Factors like excitement, rapidity of the action or planned inconspicuousness considerably impair the witness' ability to observe, especially since criminals take precautions to conceal their identity.

Thus, the popular belief that direct testimony has invariably an especially high probative force appears unverifiable. Indeed, the facts testified to in offering circumstantial evidence might well have been observed under more normal conditions. It therefore seems that testimony used circumstantially may be more reliable than that used directly. Even if the logical force of circumstantial evidence is weaker, the requirement of proof beyond a reasonable doubt will itself compel more proof in a circumstantial evidence case, unless the jury fails to weigh that proof with the necessary caution.

Thus it must be noted that the human mind is so constituted that when a person gives evidence of having seen a particular fact, it may not accept it because of the possibility of a mistake; whereas, if there is a chain of circumstances, all logically pointing towards the existence of the matter in controversy, it may be considered impossible for such a chain to be forged falsely and deliberately because that would involve a close knit work between the several witnesses, a plan of mendacity which would be highly improbable. Therefore, we might with greater truth say that witnesses may be mistaken but circumstances are not. Even so, fact and fiction have several instances of circumstances pointing one way, the truth is the other way.

The Modern Steps in Circumstantial Evidence

With the development of modern life, there has been a tremendous advance in scientific knowledge and devices. This knowledge and these devices are being applied for the purpose of obtaining circumstantial evidence to assist the prosecution to secure the conviction of the criminal. The eye witness of a crime, no doubt, supplies the most important evidence, which deserves utmost consideration by the court, but it is subject to scrutiny, because it may be erroneous either as a result of human error or of malice or misplaced loyalty. In view of this, circumstantial evidence, which tests the accuracy of direct evidence of eye witnesses is always welcome by the courts; and with the application of scientific methods, greater reliance is placed on objective tests to trace or prove the guilt of the accused, than on direct evidence.

Also circumstantial evidence of inference of Consciousness of guilt is crucial for example the post arrest behaviour. Similarly the modern courts have also been placing a lot of reliance of Rape Trauma Syndrome for zeroing in on a conclusion. A little thought however must be borne in one’s mind that at some point of the evidenciary graph we are comparing incommensurable things.


Thus we have seen that each and every conclusion that is drawn out of a judgment, whatever may be its subject, is the result of evidence. Though direct evidence has been relied upon in a great many cases but the Circumstantial evidence, also known as indirect evidence, it a crucial stepping stone in the Criminal proceedings. It is an unrelated chain of events which when put together formulates circumstances leading to the commission of the crime and can be used to derive a conclusion. Information pertaining to the said chain of events in civil or criminal cases establishes the existence of a fact or any assertion a party seeks to prove. Circumstantial evidence is supported by a significant amount of corroboration. Convictions if based on circumstantial evidence require an unbreakable link between the criminal and the crime. The inference of guilt must be reasonably done. On a conclusive note, we may state that the evolutionary aspects of the law of Evidence has proved that circumstantial evidence has proved to be one of the very crucial yet intriguing part of the criminal proceedings.


  1. Primary Sources

  • Statutes

  • The Indian Evidence Act, 1872, (India).

  • Cases

  • People v Bretagna, 298 N.Y. 323, 325 (1949).

  • People v Cleague, supra, 22 N.Y.2d, at 365-366.

  • People v Sanchez, 61 N.Y.2d 1022, 1024 (1984).

  • Bodh Raj v. State of Jammu & Kashmir, AIR 2002 SC 316

  • Siddharth Vashisht alias Manu Sharma v. State of NCT of Delhi 2010 (69) ACC 833 (SC)

  • Khem Karan v State of U.P AIR 1974 SC 1567 (3JJ).

  • Sathya Narayan v State 2013 (80) ACC 138 (SC).

  • Ashok Kumar v. State Of Madhya Pradesh, AIR 1989 SC 1890.

  • State of U.P. v. Ram Balak & Anr., 2008, 15 SCC 551.

  • Bhagat Ram v. State of Punjab, 1972, AIR 1502, 1972 SCR (3) 503.

  • C. Chenga Reddy v. State of A.P, 1996 10 SCC 193.

  • Sharad Birdhi Chand Sarda vs State Of Maharashtra, 1984 AIR 1622, 1985 SCR (1) 88

  • Bhimsingh Vs. State, 2015, 4 SCC 281.

  • State of Goa v. Pandurang Mohite, AIR 2009 SC 1066.

  • Rohtas Kumar v. State of Haryana, 2013 (82) ACC 401 (SC)

  • Ashok Vs. State of Maharashtra, 2015, 4 SCC 393, Ramesh Vs. State, 2014, 9 SCC 392

  • Niranjan Panja Vs. State of W.B, 2010, 6 SCC 525, Vithal Eknath Adlinge Vs. State of Maharashtra, AIR 2009 SC 2067

  • Sidhartha Vashisht alias Manu Sharma Vs. State of NCT of Delhi, 2010 (69) ACC 833 (SC).

  • State of Punjab v Karnail Singh (2003) 11 SCC 271.

  • People v Ford, 66 NY2d 428, 441-443 (1985).

  • Gade Lakshmi Mangraju v State of A.P. AIR 2001 SC 2677.

  • Hanumant Govind Nargundkar v State of M.P. AIR 1952 SC 343.

  • Laxman Naik v State of Orissa AIR 1995 SC 1387.

  1. Secondary Sources

  • Books

  • Batuk Lal, The Law of Evidence, (22nd ed. 2018)

Sriya Shubhalaxmi Mishra

B.A. LL.B. (Hons) (Pursuing)

National University of Study and Research in Law, Ranchi

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