Introduction to the Hostile Witness Conundrum 2023

In a significant development within the Indian judiciary, the concept of a “hostile witness” has taken center stage, presenting a complex scenario that challenges the prosecution’s ability to navigate the intricacies of witness testimony. The unfolding case sees the public prosecutor attempting to reclassify a witness as hostile after their testimony seemingly favors the defense. Despite these efforts, the trial judge’s refusal to permit further cross-examination post-chief examination complicates matters further. This decision prompts the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) to escalate the issue, first to the High Court and then to the Supreme Court, leading to a deeper examination of the legal provisions underpinning witness examination and the discretionary powers of the court. This introduction sets the stage for an in-depth exploration of the judicial proceedings and the Supreme Court’s stance on the matter, providing valuable insights for judiciary aspirants.

Complex Legal Scenario

  • Judicial discretion: The case delves into the discretionary powers of the court under Section 154 of the Indian Evidence Act, 1872.
  • Prosecution challenges: It presents the challenges faced by the prosecution in reclassifying witnesses.
  • Supreme Court’s intervention: The role of the Supreme Court in clarifying legal provisions is emphasized.


  • Hostile Witness: The case revolves around a witness whose testimony during cross-examination favors the defense, prompting the public prosecutor to seek permission to cross-examine the witness as hostile.
  • Trial Judge’s Decision: The trial judge denied the public prosecutor’s request to cross-examine the witness, leading the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) to appeal to the High Court (HC), which also refused to intervene.
  • Key Testimony Details: The witness discussed a document, described as a sale deed from 1993, claiming to have received consideration for it in 1983. Further details about the consideration were revealed during cross-examination.
  • Public Prosecutor’s Request: The request to treat the witness as hostile was made only after cross-examination, which is a significant detail because the trial judge’s refusal to grant permission was based on the timing of this request.
  • Section 154 of the Indian Evidence Act: The trial judge’s decision hinged on this section, which allows a court the discretion to permit cross-examination of a witness by the party that called them.
  • Supreme Court Appeal: The CBI appealed to the Supreme Court under Article 136 of the Constitution of India, questioning whether a public prosecutor can seek permission to cross-examine their own witness at any stage of the trial.
  • Supreme Court’s Observations: The Supreme Court noted that while courts generally grant permission for such requests, the timing and circumstances in this case led to the trial judge’s refusal. The Court emphasized the importance of the prosecutor’s timing in seeking permission to cross-examine and the implications of doing so after the fact.

Issues Involved

This case poses the central question of whether a public prosecutor can be granted permission by the court to cross-examine their own witness at any stage of a trial. This issue arises from a complex situation where a witness initially seemed to support the prosecution’s case, but their testimony during cross-examination favored the defense. The procedural timing of this request highlights the discretionary powers of the court under Section 154 of the Indian Evidence Act, 1872. This scenario challenges the judiciary to balance fairness and the integrity of the legal process against procedural technicalities, making it a compelling subject of analysis for judiciary aspirants.

Navigating the Legal Maze: The Public Prosecutor’s Dilemma

The dilemma faced by the public prosecutor in this case highlights the complexities of managing witnesses whose testimonies deviate from initial expectations. When the witness’s answers during cross-examination revealed a shift in allegiance, the prosecutor sought to label the witness as hostile. However, the timing of this request, coming after the cross-examination, led to the trial judge’s refusal based on procedural grounds. This situation illustrates the intricate balance that prosecutors must navigate, blending strategic timing with the constraints of courtroom procedures.

A Legal Conundrum: The Trial Court’s Discretion Under Scrutiny

The trial court’s decision not to allow the public prosecutor to cross-examine the witness as hostile brings the discretionary powers granted under Section 154 of the Indian Evidence Act, 1872, into focus. This legal provision allows courts the latitude to permit a party to question their own witness, which is pivotal in cases involving hostile witnesses. The trial court’s and High Court’s decisions not to exercise this discretion post-cross-examination spotlight the legal quandary of when and how this discretion should be applied, emphasizing the case-specific nature of such judicial decisions.

The Supreme Court’s Intervention: Revisiting Section 154 of the IEA

The Supreme Court’s involvement in this case served as a clarifying force, revisiting the nuances of Section 154 of the Indian Evidence Act. The apex court’s examination of the trial court’s discretion and the public prosecutor’s procedural misstep provided crucial commentary on the judiciary’s role in managing witness testimonies. By dissecting the procedural requirements and timing of declaring a witness hostile, the Supreme Court’s observations shed light on the broader principles guiding the application of Section 154, reinforcing the judiciary’s commitment to ensuring justice through procedural correctness and fairness.

Implications for Future Prosecutions: A New Paradigm

The Supreme Court’s decision in this appeal marks a pivotal moment in the legal handling of hostile witnesses, setting a precedent that could influence future prosecutions. This case illustrates the critical importance of procedural timing and the strategic considerations prosecutors must weigh when dealing with adversarial witnesses. It also emphasizes the judiciary’s role in balancing the pursuit of truth with adherence to legal procedures, potentially ushering in a new paradigm in the courtroom management of witness testimonies.


In the intricate tapestry of legal proceedings, the Supreme Court’s disposition of the appeal serves not only as a testament to the nuanced interpretation of the law but also as a guiding beacon for judiciary aspirants. The apex court’s decision underscores the importance of procedural diligence and strategic foresight within the courtroom. For aspiring judges and lawyers, this case exemplifies the critical need to understand the dynamics between the examination of witnesses and the pivotal role of the Indian Evidence Act, particularly Section 154. It enlightens on how the judiciary’s discretion, exercised with prudence, can significantly impact the outcome of a case, stressing the judiciary’s overarching goal of delivering justice while adhering strictly to the letter of the law. This case should encourage judiciary aspirants to delve deeper into the procedural aspects of law and understand the profound impact of timing, strategy, and legal acumen in the courtroom. Let this case inspire you to not only become adept at law but to also aspire to contribute to its evolution, ensuring justice prevails through every loophole and procedural nuance.