Unlawful Assembly; Scope of Constructive Liability

Discussing the scope of constructive liability in an unlawful assembly the Supreme Court in the decision reported as (2013) 4 SCC 607 Subal Ghorai & Ors. Vs. State of West Bengal held:

# Scope of Section 149 IPC; Principles

  • Section 141 IPC defines unlawful assembly to be an assembly of five or more persons. They must have common object to commit an offence.
  • Section 142 IPC postulates that whoever being aware of facts which render any assembly an unlawful one intentionally joins the same would be a member thereof.
  • Section 143 IPC provides for punishment for being a member of unlawful assembly.
  • Section 149 IPC provides for constructive liability of every person of an unlawful assembly if an offence is committed by any member thereof in prosecution of the common object of that assembly or such of the members of that assembly who knew to be likely to be committed in prosecution of that object.
  • The most important ingredient of unlawful assembly is common object. Common object of the persons composing that assembly is to do any act or acts stated in clauses “First”, “Second”, “Third”, “Fourth” and “Fifth” of that section.
  • Common object can be formed on the spur of the moment. Course of conduct adopted by the members of common assembly is a relevant factor. At what point of time common object of unlawful assembly was formed would depend upon the facts and circumstances of each case.
  • Once the case of the person falls within the ingredients of Section 149 IPC, the question that he did nothing with his own hands would be immaterial.
  • If an offence is committed by a member of the unlawful assembly in prosecution of the common object, any member of the unlawful assembly who was present at the time of commission of offence and who shared the common object of that assembly would be liable for the commission of that offence even if no overt act was committed by him.
  • If a large crowd of persons armed with weapons assaults intended victims, all may not take part in the actual assault. If weapons carried by some members were not used, that would not absolve them of liability for the offence with the aid of Section 149 IPC if they shared common object of the unlawful assembly.

# Constructive Liability

But this concept of constructive liability must not be so stretched as to lead to false implication of innocent bystanders. Quite often, people gather at the scene of offence out of curiosity. They do not share common object of the unlawful assembly.

If a general allegation is made against large number of people, the court has to be cautious. It must guard against the possibility of convicting mere passive onlookers who did not share the common object of the unlawful assembly.

Unless reasonable direct or indirect circumstances lend assurance to the prosecution case that they shared common object of the unlawful assembly, they cannot be convicted with the aid of Section 149 IPC.

It must be proved in each case that the person concerned was not only a member of the unlawful assembly at some stage, but at all the crucial stages and shared the common object of the assembly at all stages. The court must have before it some materials to form an opinion that the accused shared common object.

What the common object of the unlawful assembly is at a particular stage has to be determined keeping in view the course of conduct of the members of the unlawful assembly before and at the time of attack, their behaviour at or near the scene of offence, the motive for the crime, the arms carried by them and such other relevant considerations.

The criminal court has to conduct this difficult and meticulous exercise of assessing evidence to avoid roping innocent people in the crime. These principles laid down by the Court do not dilute the concept of constructive liability. They embody a rule of caution.

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