2 March 2023 10:53 AM GMT
In a notable judgment, the Supreme Court has opined that it is desirable that the High Courts do not quash corruption case FIRs at investigation stage, even if it is suspected that the case has been registered by a new government against officers of the previous government.A Bench of Justices S Ravindra Bhat and Dipankar Datta observed that if the accused are allowed to go scot-free only on...
In a notable judgment, the Supreme Court has opined that it is desirable that the High Courts do not quash corruption case FIRs at investigation stage, even if it is suspected that the case has been registered by a new government against officers of the previous government.
A Bench of Justices S Ravindra Bhat and Dipankar Datta observed that if the accused are allowed to go scot-free only on the ground that the action has been taken by the current regime in a malafide manner to "settle scores", criminal justice system will become a casualty. Quashing FIR on the sole ground that it has been registered by the new government to wreak vengeance of the individual therefore is not advisable.
"This is because, it is difficult to form an opinion conclusively at the stage of reading a first information report that the public servant is either in or not in possession of property disproportionate to the known sources of his/her income. It would all depend on what is ultimately unearthed after the investigation is complete", the bench explained.
Hence, the bench said that it is desirable that the High Courts adopt a "hands-off" approach.
“Having regard to what we have observed above in paragraph 49 (supra) and to maintain probity in the system of governance as well as to ensure that societal pollutants are weeded out at the earliest, it would be eminently desirable if the high courts maintain a hands-off approach and not quash a first information report pertaining to “corruption” cases, specially at the stage of investigation, even though certain elements of strong-arm tactics of the ruling dispensation might be discernible.”
The Apex Court clarified that it does not intend to fetter the high courts from intervening in appropriate cases but sought to remind the latter to be careful, circumspect and cautious in quashing FIRs on malafide grounds.
HC Wrong To Quash FIR: State, Complainant Argue
The court made the observations in a case challenging the Chhattisgarh High Court's order quashing a disproportionate assets case registered in 2020 against Aman Singh, the former Principal Secretary of the former Chief Minister Raman Singh, and his wife Yasmin Singh, who was a consultant when the Raman Singh government was in power.
Complaints were lodged against the IRS officer and his wife in 2019 on grounds of corruption and money laundering. This apart, the couple also held assets which are disproportionate to their known sources of income, it was alleged. The current Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel ordered for the complaint to be enquired into by the Economic Offences Wing and consequently, a preliminary inquiry was ordered.
Prior to this, Yasmin had moved the High Court questioning the departmental enquiry. On January 16, 2020, the High Court directed the State to refrain from taking any steps to her prejudice. Then, Aman approached the High Court. While the matter was pending, an FIR was registered against the husband-wife duo.
In January, 2022, the High Court quashed the FIR. Challenging this judgement, petitions were moved before the Supreme Court.
Senior Advocate Kapil Sibal, for the State, contended that the High Court had committed gross error of law in quashing the FIR, by transgressing the legal bounds.
When a FIR could be lodged on the basis of suspicion, the High Court in the present case erred in law in quashing the FIR on the ground that it was based on “probabilities”; the High Court overstepped its limits, he argued.
Senior Advocate Sanjay Hegde, assisted by Advocate-on-Record Pranjal Kishore, for the other appellant contended that the High Court clearly applied a wrong test while quashing the FIR.
Senior Advocate Mahesh Jethmalani appearing for the couple, opposed the appeals and contended that the High Court rightly concluded that investigation of the FIR, which did not prima facie disclose commission of any cognizable offence by either of the two.
Law Abhors Illicit Intentional Enrichment; Preliminary Enquiry Indispensable: Court
The most crucial aspect for Court’s consideration was the extent of the High Courts’ power under Article 226 of the Constitution or section 482 of the Code of Criminal Procedure to quash a FIR under section 13 of the PC Act [criminal misconduct].
Highlighting the menace of corruption and greed, the Court observed that husband-wife duo are ‘public servants’ under the PC Act.
The Court noted that the illicit ‘intentional enrichment’ by a public servant during the period of their office is a criminal misconduct.
This presumptive finding, the Court said, is based on three aspects:
The offence of criminal misconduct is committed by a public servant if the second point is proved and third point does not happen, the court observed.
“The law of the land abhors any public servant to intentionally enrich himself illicitly during the tenure of his service. Increase in the assets of such a public servant tantamount to constitutionally impermissible conduct and such conduct is liable to be put under the scanner of the P.C. Act,” the court observed.
The court further observed that a preliminary inquiry or probe becomes indispensable in a complaint of acquisition of disproportionate assets not only to safeguard the interest of the accused public servant but also to appropriately assess the quantum of disproportionate assets if there’s some substance in the complaint.
The Court also voiced that during the tenure of the public servant’s office under their employer, former might not have been suspected of possession of pecuniary resources or disproportionate assets. It might been held through somebody on their behalf. This is where the importance of an investigation comes in, the court pointed out.
“In such a scenario, it is indeed a difficult task for the Government - the employer - because of its impersonal character and the usual lethargy or indolence at Government levels to connect the officer with the resources or assets illicitly acquired. To weed out corrupt public servants, the Government has to engage sincere and dedicated personnel for collecting and collating the necessary material in this regard. If there be no interventions, the investigation that is likely to follow in terms of the Cr. P.C., could enable the investigating officer to collect and collate the entire evidence establishing the essential links between the public servant and the property or pecuniary resources in dispute.”
Since snapping of any link in the chain of circumstances could prove fatal to the whole exercise, it is of utmost necessity that care and dexterity are not compromised, the court added.
Observing that the FIR in the present case could have been drafted better, the court said nothing significant turns on the "inept drafting" of the FIR "since it does make out a case of cognizable offence having been committed by AS and YS."
Unable to appreciate the reasons for quashing the FIR, the court observed that High Court did not bear in mind the note of caution in State of Haryana Vs. Bhajan Lal’s case that the power of quashing a criminal proceeding should be exercised very sparingly and with circumspection and that too, in the rarest of rare cases.
“…the court will not be justified in embarking upon an enquiry as to the reliability or genuineness or otherwise of the allegations made in the FIR or the complaint; and also, that, the extraordinary or inherent powers do not confer an arbitrary jurisdiction on the court to act according to its whim or caprice.”
The High Court ought to have realized that the FIR which, according to it, was based on “probabilities”, ought not to have been interdicted, the court said.
On the question whether the challenge to the FIR on the ground that it is vitiated by mala fides, the Court observed that writ petitions before the High Court would not have succeeded even though that argument was advanced.
“…what is of substantial importance is that if criminal prosecution is based upon adequate evidence and the same is otherwise justifiable, it does not become vitiated on account of significant political overtones and mala fide motives. We can say without fear of contradiction, it is not in all cases in our country that an individual, who is accused of acts of omission/commission punishable under the P.C. Act but has the blessings of the ruling dispensation, is booked by the police and made to face prosecution.”
While making these observations, the court also stated that there are still innocent public officers who are roped into false cases but that would be a small price to pay.
“We quite appreciate that there could be cases of innocent public servants being entangled in investigations arising out of motivated complaints and the consequent mental agony, emotional pain and social stigma that they would have to encounter in the process, but this small price has to be paid if there is to be a society governed by the rule of law.”
With these observations, the Court set aside the High Court’s judgement while extending the interim protection earlier granted to the respondents by three weeks.
Case Title: The State Of Chattisgarh & Anr Vs Aman Kumar Singh & Ors. | Slp (Crl.) Nos.1703-1705 Of 2022)
Citation : 2023 LiveLaw (SC) 158
For Appellant(s) Mr. Sanjay R. Hegde, Sr. Adv. Mr. Arun Kumar Jaiswal, Adv. Mr. Pranjal Kishore, AOR Mr. Kapil Sibal, Sr. Adv. Mr. Gautam Narayan, AOR Mr. Sanjeevi Seshadri, Adv.
For Respondent(s) Mr. Mahesh Jethmalani, Sr. Adv. Mr. Vikash Singh, Sr. Adv. Mr. Apoorv Kurup, AOR Mr. Ojaswa Pathak, Adv. Ms. Nidhi Mittal, Adv. Ms. Aparna Arun, Adv. Ms. Swati Bhardwaj, Adv. Mr. Pranjal Kishore, AOR
Code of Criminal Procedure - Section 482 - Supreme Court opines that it is desirable that High Courts refrain from quashing cases under the Prevention of Corruption Act even if it suspected that the case is registered by a new government against officers who supported the previous government-it would be eminently desirable if the high courts maintain a hands-off approach and not quash a first information report pertaining to “corruption” cases, specially at the stage of investigation, even though certain elements of strong-arm tactics of the ruling dispensation might be discernible - Para 74
Prevention of Corruption Act 1988- It is desirable that High Courts maintain a "hands-off" approach and not quash FIRs relating to corruption cases at investigation stage-This is because, it is difficult to form an opinion conclusively at the stage of reading a first information report that the public servant is either in or not in possession of property disproportionate to the known sources of his/her income. It would all depend on what is ultimately unearthed after the investigation is complete -The considerations that could apply to quashing of first information reports pertaining to offences punishable under general penal statutes ex proprio vigore may not be applicable to a P.C. Act offence- Para 74
Prevention of Corruption Act 1988 - Zero Tolerance to Corruption- Though it is the preambular promise of the Constitution to secure social justice to the people of India by striving to achieve equal distribution of wealth, it is yet a distant dream. If not the main, one of the more prominent hurdles for achieving progress in this field is undoubtedly ‘corruption’. Corruption is a malaise, the presence of which is all pervading in every walk of life - Para 49
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