September 30, 2022

The Meaning and History of the offence of perjury

Courts are entrusted with the powers of dispensation and adjudication of justice of the rival claims of the parties besides determining the criminal liability of the offenders for offences committed against the society. The courts are further expected to do justice quickly and impartially not being biased by any extraneous considerations.

Justice dispensation system would be wrecked if statutory restrictions are not imposed upon the litigants, who attempt to mislead the court by filing and relying upon the false evidence particularly in cases, the adjudication of which is depended upon the statement of facts. If the result of the proceedings is to be respected, these issues before the courts must be resolved to the extent possible in accordance with the truth.

The purity of proceedings of the court cannot be permitted to be sullied by a party on frivolous, vexatious or insufficient grounds or relying upon false evidence inspired by extraneous considerations or revengeful desire to harass or spite his opponent.

Sanctity of the affidavits has to be preserved and protected discouraging the filing of irresponsible statements, without any regard to accuracy.

Hence, the offence of perjury emerged to punish the witnesses who give false statements in the courts.

Meaning of the Perjury

At common law, courts took action against a person who was shown to have made a statement, material in the proceedings, which he knew to be false or did not believe to be true. The offence committed by him is known as perjury.

History of the offence of the Perjury

Before witnesses had any formal role in trials, there was no need for a perjury law.

Trial in Ancient Times

Trial by battle

In the Middle Ages, when the English common law was developing, trial by battle was used to test a sworn accusation.

Ordeal

Similarly, for the sworn denial of a serious charge based on mere suspicion, an ordeal administered by a priest was the predominant mode of trial until it was abolished in 1215 as superstitious.

Compurgation

Finally, at least until the Assize of Clarendon (1166), less serious accusations could be successfully answered by “compurgation”, that is, by obtaining a sufficient number of “oath helpers” to support the defendant’s credibility.

Modern type of Trial

Civil trials

Trials in the modern sense began to develop only in the thirteenth century. Little is reliably known about the conduct of jury trials prior to the sixteenth century, but in civil cases, it seems that genuine witnesses were permitted to give their accounts, although they could not be compelled to appear.

Criminal Trial

In early criminal cases, the jury seems always to have included some who aware of the commission of a crime in their community, brought the suspect before a judge. Those witnesses who did attend jury and retired with them to deliberate, often to make their disclosures in secret.

Writ of attaint

It was the verdict, not the testimony, that was perceived as either true or false; the only remedy for falsehood remotely akin to a perjury prosecution was a seldom-invoked procedure called “the writ of attaint,” created in 1202 and not abolished formally until 1825.

Through attaint, the jury would be punished for a ‘false’ verdict and the verdict itself overturned.

Testifying for Crown

Witness first testified under oath in criminal cases on behalf of the Crown in the sixteenth century. No witnesses for the defence were permitted until the mid-seventeenth century since they would have been witnesses against the Crown, and not until 1702 were defence witnesses permitted to be sworn.

Testimony for the court

By the late seventeenth century the jury had lost all its testimonial functions, and witnesses thus became the sole means of bringing facts to the judge’s and jury’s attention. Since the early common law had no established mechanism for dealing with false swearing by witnesses, the Court of Start Chamber assumed for itself the power to punish perjury. This authority was confirmed by statute in 1487[1].

First statute against Perjury in England

The first detailed statute against false swearing was enacted in 1562. When the Star Chamber was abolished in 1640, its judicially defined offence of perjury passed into English common law, reaching any cases of false testimony not covered by the terms of the statute.

The offence of Perjury in India

In India, law relating to the offence of perjury is given a statutory definition under Section 191 and Chapter XI of the Indian Penal Code, incorporated to deal with the offences relating to giving false evidence against public justice.

The offences incorporated under this Chapter are based upon recognition of the decline of moral values and erosion of sanctity of oath. Unscrupulous litigants are found daily resorting to utter blatant falsehood in the courts which have, to some extent, resulted in polluting the judicial system.

Conclusion

It is a fact, though unfortunate, that a general impression is created that most of the witnesses coming in the courts despite taking oath make false statements to suit the interests of the parties calling them.

Effective and stern action is required to be taken for preventing the evil of perjury, concededly let lose by vested interest and professional litigants. The mere existence of the penal provisions to deal with perjury would be a cruel joke with the society unless the courts stop taking an evasive recourse despite proof of the commission of the offence under Chapter XI of the Indian Penal Code. If the system is to service, effective action is the need of the time.

Reference

1. Stanford H. Kadish, “Encyclopaedia of Crime and Justice” (Vol. 3)

2. Suo Moto Proceedings Against Mr. R. Karuppan, Advocate vs Unknown: AIR 2001 SC 2204,


[1] (Star Chamber Act, 3 Hen. 5, c. 1 (1487) (England) (repealed)).