The application of section 304A of the IPC, which lays down the offence of causing death by negligence, has been marked with several debates. The most resounding, and the most sensitive of these debates is the one which puts forward this question - Can the High Court, under its inherent powers conferred by section 482 of CrPC, quash the proceedings under section 304A if there exists a settlement between the accused and the victim's legal representatives.
Before we delve into this particular debate, let's have a relook at what the section actually states. It reads as:
'Whoever causes the death of any person by doing any rash or negligent act not amounting to culpable homicide, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to two years, or with fine, or with both.'
The dilemma surrounding section 304A stems from the fact that it involves a combination of a harm which is as grave as death with a sentence which is relatively very light. However, it's a settled principle of law that merely an act of rashness which has remote connection with the death would not attract section 304A. It has to be an act of 'culpable rashness or negligence', which in Namadevan v. State of Madras, was defined as an act which implies the consciousness that the intended consequences would surely ensue. Moreover, as it was also noted by the Supreme Court in Jacob Mathew v. State of Punjab that the concept of negligence under section 304A is different and is much higher in degree than that contemplated as civil wrong.
It is this ambiguity surrounding the words 'gross negligence' coupled with the fact that mens rea is not required to be proved, that makes dealing with cases coming under this section a little peculiar. One such peculiarity is quashing of the case on the ground of a compromise being reached between the accused and the legal representatives of the victim.
Those who argue in favour of the quashing by the High Court under section 482 of CrPC, usually put forward the following claims:
On the other hand, those who stand against the quashing argue the following:
Many High Courts have ruled both in favour and against the idea of allowing quashing of proceedings under 304A by the virtue of a settlement being reached between the parties. Therefore, it becomes significant to see what the apex court has ruled in matters that have an impact on the present issue.
While reversing the order of the High Court which had reduced the sentence by virtue of increasing the compensation, the apex court categorically opined in Sadha Singh v. State of Punjab that allowing such a trend would mean that if your pockets can afford it, commit a serious crime, offer to pay a heavy fine, and escape the tenets of law. 'Power of wealth need not extend to overawe the court', it said. Moreover, in Hari Singh v. Sukhbir Singh it was held that compensation granted to the aggrieved by the accused cannot be viewed as a trade-off for the prosecution of the accused persons.
In light of above-mentioned judgements, it becomes important two major contentions of those who say that proceedings under section 304A should be quashed upon a settlement being reached between the parties.
It is seldom argued that death caused by negligence is a private affair between the accused and the family of the victim and hence can be addressed by the said parties through an agreement. However, the apex court while addressing the nature of offences laid down in section 304A in State of Karnataka v. Sharanappa Basangouda Aregoudar categorically noted that giving sentence in such cases is the most public face of the criminal justice system and it has due regard to the larger interest of the society. Moreover in Dalbir Singh v. State of Punjab, the deterrent principle of punishing individuals for their reckless act was reiterated by saying that the punishment shall instill a fear in the psyche of the person that if he has committed an offence under this section, he cannot escape from a jail sentence.
2. Fair Compensation for the Legal Representatives of the Victim As Relief
Those who support quashing usually argues that if the FIR is quashed, the legal heirs who already have the agony of losing a family member are given some monetary relief, which is a major relief for a person belonging to an underprivileged section of society.
This concern can be easily addressed without taking the quashing route. Under multiple legislations such as Motor Vehicles Act, Workmen Compensation Act, Employees Compensation Act, etc. it is the duty of the state to ensure adequate compensation to the victim (which includes victim's heirs). Another route is the Victim Compensation Scheme which is formulated under section 357A of CrPC.
Therefore, it becomes amply clear that the grant of compensation to the representatives of the victim has to be given as additional relief and not as a substitute to a sentence awarded under the section. If the legislature wanted the compensation to foreclose the proceedings under section 304A, the same could've been explicitly mentioned under section 357A.
After considering the catena of judgments passed by the Supreme Court as well as the various High Courts, it can be rightly submitted that a settlement agreement cannot be an alternative to a trial for a death caused by negligence under section 304A of the IPC. Both the legislature and the judiciary have recognised it to be a serious crime and the same or reflected in the fact that it is not listed as one of the offences that can be compounded by the court. It is also important to note that the nature of offence under section 304A is different from the list of offences for which the High Court can quash the proceedings despite them not being a compoundable offence as envisaged in Gian Singh v. State of c Punjab.
Similarly, in Bhajan Lal Sharma v. State, Delhi High Court in refusing quashing, distinguished Gian Singh, supra, as stating that such a quashing in itself is an abuse of process, as a strong signal was necessary to builders in particular that gross negligence leading to death can't be solved merely by some compensation, rather than taking appropriate measures. It was reiterated that criminal proceedings were not a vindication of private grievance.
It can also be submitted that if offences under section 304A are allowed to be quashed through a settlement, and without a trial, the punishment would lose its communicative or deterrent function and it would wield unreasonable and arbitrary power in the hands of those who have deep pockets to get away from causing a death of an individual. It would reduce the value of human life to a mere monetary settlement.
The concern of trivial cases of negligence being tried under this section is unwarranted, as it was clearly shown above, that the qualification threshold of section 304A is considerably high and the impugned act needs to have a proximate relationship to the death caused, for the section to be invoked.
Therefore, quashing the FIR and foreclosing the possibility of a trial takes away the possibility of justice being realised. Such quashing, at the initial stage of investigation and that too without a trial, would scuttle the prosecution and the degree of seriousness of the offence, or its possible impact on the society, would never be accessed fairly. Society is a significant stakeholder in deaths caused by reckless behaviour, because if negligent persons are allowed to get away by paying a certain amount, they would never rehabilitate and would be prone to committing more such acts in future. To argue that gross negligence leading to death be left to the unequal bargaining powers of poor victims' families and those responsible is an extreme view even for those upholding the economic function of law.
To conclude, it is significant for the High Court, which is asked to exercise its inherent powers under section 482 of CrPC, that such power should be exercised with great care and caution and in the interest of justice. The concerned High Court shall be aware that if quashing is allowed for deaths caused by negligence by the virtue of a settlement, it would set a precedent which would scuffle the voices of those who are underprivileged and are coerced or unduly influenced to enter into such agreements.
Such imbalance of convenience, which favours the rich and detriments the poor, will send forth a dangerous message that justice, despite all that is promised, can be compromised when money is allowed to settle interests.
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