By Aditya Suresh
The Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973 [“CrPC”] aims at consolidating the law pertaining to criminal procedure in India and seeks to ensure a fair and speedy trial, by encompassing the procedural powers and safeguards necessary for the purpose of effective criminal law administration. Chapter XX of the CrPC deals with the trial of summons cases by Magistrates. In this part, Section 258 deals with the specific power of the Magistrate to stop proceedings in “any summons-case issued otherwise than upon complaint”. The release of a person under this provision requires the Magistrate of the first class or any other Judicial Magistrate with the previous sanction of the Chief Judicial Magistrate, to record the reasons for stopping the proceedings, after which the accused can be released, and such release would have the effect of discharge.
While the clear exclusion of summons-cases issued upon a complaint under this provision shows legislative intent to disallow the Magistrate to drop proceedings in such cases, initial decisions of Indian courts sought to imply the power of discharge in summons-cases issued upon complaint. Such decisions have cited such power as being a part of the procedural justice that the criminal justice system seeks to ensure to the accused. Per contra, recent decisions have taken a more stringent viewpoint, which seems to reflect the legislative intent and be in consonance with the clear wording of Section 258.
Presently, the issue of the power to discharge in summons cases issued upon complaint is lis pendens before the Delhi High Court in Criminal Reference No. 4 of 2019. Accordingly, it is imperative that the judicial divergence on this point be understood and the relevant influential factors be identified and given due importance. The next section expounds upon this divergence, and the reasons so provided.
The Judicial Divergence
The power of the Magistrate was first addressed by the Supreme Court in its 1992 decision in K.M. Mathew v. State of Kerala. In this case, the editor of a chief Malayalam newspaper “Manorama” was charged with defamation under Sections 499 and 500 of the Indian Penal Code [“IPC”]. However, the complaint itself did not contain a specific allegation against this editor. Consequently, it was contended that in the absence of such an allegation, the editor ought to be discharged. The Magistrate accepted this contention, and the editor was discharged upon a conjoint reading of Sections 204 and 251, CrPC. The High Court overruled this decision, after which the Supreme Court on appeal, reinstated the decision of the Magistrate. This was because the Supreme Court opined that reading Section 258 in its strictest sense, imposed a certain technicality which could not be accepted as an absolute rule applicable to all cases. Accordingly, the power to drop proceedings could not be denied to the Magistrate. Section 204, CrPC requires that there be “sufficient ground for proceeding” before the issue of summons and the beginning of the trial. Consequently, the Court found that where there was no allegation in the complaint involving the accused in the commission of the crime, it is implied that the Magistrate has no jurisdiction to proceed against the accused. Thus, the Court found that if upon reconsideration of the complaint, there was no offence for which the accused could be tried, it was the Magistrate’s judicial discretion to drop the proceedings and no specific provision in this regard would be necessary.
In 2004, the decision in K.M. Mathew was revisited by the Supreme Court in Adalat Prasad v. Rooplal Jindal. This case dealt with a recall of the summons by the concerned Magistrate after the process had been issued under Section 204, CrPC. The decision in K.M. Mathew was relied upon by the appellant to justify the order of recall, and the Court took this case as an opportunity to re-examine the decision in K.M. Mathew’s case. The Court herein delved into a conjoint reading of Sections 202, 203 and 204 of the CrPC, found that the position in K.M. Mathew had to be partially overruled. The Court herein agreed with the observation in K.M. Mathew that where there were no specific allegations made out in the complaint itself, the person had to be discharged under Section 204, CrPC since there was no “sufficient ground for proceeding” with the case. However, once the process had been issued under Section 204, the Court found that the Magistrate did not have the right to recall the issue of process, and the case had to be carried forward to trial. This was because the Court found that should the situation be such that the Magistrate has to decide whether there are sufficient grounds for proceeding, an investigation under Section 202, CrPC can be ordered and the issue of process postponed. Thus, the scope for discharge was limited to cases where the process had not been issued, and the wide discretion conferred by the Court in K.M. Mathew was overruled.
The judicial debate on this point, however, was further complicated when the Court in Adalat Prasad additionally noted that in the absence of a direct provision dealing with review power of the issue of process under Section 204, the inherent power of the High Court under Section 482, CrPC had to be resorted to. Since then, decisions such as those in Subramanium Seetharaman v. State of Maharashtra and Urmila Devi v. Yudhvir Singh have found that proceedings initiated by the Magistrate under Section 204 could be recalled, should the accused exercise his power of review under Section 482, CrPC. The reasoning given by these courts was that it was only the Magistrate who did not have the power to recall proceedings in summons-cases issued upon complaint, and the High Court was still perfectly within its rights to review the issue of process under Section 204. Thus, upon having delved into the judiciary’s reasoning over the years, the debate must be analysed from the larger perspectives of the aims and objectives of the CrPC, particularly its promise of ensuring a fair trial. The next section elaborates upon this point.
Analysing the Debate: Balancing the Scales of Justice
Given the seemingly divergent viewpoints in the K.M. Mathew and Adalat Prasad cases, along with the additional aspect of review under Section 482, CrPC, these decisions merit discussion. The author believes that the Adalat Prasad case rightly overruled the wide discretionary power conferred to the Magistrate by the K.M. Mathew case. However, the author disagrees with the position of law laid down in Adalat Prasad, insofar as it retains the power of recall under Section 482, CrPC.
Fair trial merits equal treatment and fair opportunity. To that extent, the Magistrate has been given the initial opportunity to examine and scrutinize the complaint under Section 202 CrPC, in order to find sufficient grounds for proceeding with the case. Accordingly, where such grounds exist, the Magistrate can issue process under Section 204, CrPC. This process of inquiry ensures that there exist prima facie grounds for proceeding with the case. This becomes particularly important in fact scenarios such as that in the K.M. Mathew case or the case of Arvind Kejriwal v. AmitSibal, wherein a case of criminal defamation had been filed against Arvind Kejriwal. This is because, apart from the fact that criminal proceedings would result in long-drawn trials having a cost effect, the carrying-forward of the trial has a pertinent social effect as well, in terms of reputation loss. Reputation becomes particularly important for editors, politicians, lawyers or even doctors, who are tagged as accused without the existence of a prima facie case against them.
That being said, providing the power to recall proceedings even after issuing of process under Section 204 is patently problematic. This is because first, it provides scope to be used as a dilatory tactic, and allows for a delayed trial in spite of the Magistrate has taken the existence of prima facie grounds into account before issuing process under Section 204, CrPC. While this may be criticized for denying a right to appeal to the accused, it must be noted that the accused continues to retain the right to appeal after proceedings have concluded before the Magistrate. Accordingly, there is no denial of the right to the accused.
Second, if the right to drop proceedings in summons-cases issued upon complaint is restricted to before the issue of process under Section 204, it would be consistent with legislative intent. Given how criminal statutes are to be interpreted strictly and in a manner that ensures that each provision is given due effect to, such a reading would ensure that the words “instituted otherwise than upon complaint” in Section 258, CrPC is not rendered redundant.
Third, imposing such restrictions on the power of review of the issue of process under Section 204 would prevent diversion of State resources to defend the review petitions filed under Section 482, CrPC before the High Court. Consequently, this would ensure that the ever-increasing burden of the High Court is restricted solely to cases dealing with final rather than interlocutory orders while ensuring a smooth criminal trial at the trial court stage.
Thus, the author believes that in order to ensure fair trial to the accused while simultaneously ensuring swift justice for the complainant, the decision in Adalat Prasad must be effectuated to the point where it denies recall of proceedings after the issue of process. However, the decision must be extended to further note that no court has the power to review the issue of process under Section 204 at an interlocutory stage.
In Criminal Reference No. 4 of 2019 before the Delhi High Court, particular reference has been sought pertaining to the power of discharge after the issue of process under Section 204, CrPC. The author believes that in this regard, the objectives of the Code are best upheld if no power to discharge is provided to the Magistrate or any other court, after the issue of process. This would ensure a synthesis between the right to a fair trial for the accused, and the right to a speedy trial for the complainant.
[The author is a third-year B.A., LL.B. (Hons.) student at National Law University, Jodhpur.]