Quashing of FIRs by High Courts under Section 482 CrPC: A closer look

Innumerable FIRs have been quashed by various High Courts across the country in oblivion of the law laid down in the binding precedent of Kurukshetra University case.
Criminal Law
Criminal Law

From 1773 to 1823, three Supreme Courts were established at Calcutta, Madras and Bombay. Thereafter, three chartered High Courts were established in their place under the High Courts Act, 1861 and the concerning letters patent.

Neither the relevant charter, letters patent, nor the 1861 Act contained any provision recognising the inherent powers of these courts.

On January 1,1862, the first Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC) came into force in India. It did not contain any provision recognising the inherent powers of the three chartered High Courts. A few years later came a decision from the Calcutta High Court holding that it did not possess any inherent power on the criminal side. Some later decisions held that the High Courts did possess inherent powers.

Then came the CrPC of 1898, which initially did not contain any provision recognising the inherent powers of the High Courts. In 1908, the Code of Civil Procedure (CPC) came to be enacted. Under Section 151, the Code specifically provided for inherent powers of civil courts. As a result, judicial opinion across the country became divergent on whether High Courts on the criminal side possess inherent powers or not. It was held by some High Courts that the CrPC oof 1898 did not contain any provision like Section 151 of the CPC, which made it clear that there was a conscious omission on the part of the law-makers to omit inherent powers of the criminal courts.

This divergence of opinion was done away with by the 1923 amendment to the CrPC 1898, which inserted Section 561-A. The provisions contained in Section 561-A were verbatim made a part of the present Section 482 of the present CrPC 1973.

The bare text of Section 482 of the Code reads as under:

"482. Saving of inherent powers of High Court.—

Nothing in this Code shall be deemed to limit or affect the inherent powers of the High Court to make such orders as may be necessary to give effect to any order under this Code, or to prevent abuse of the process of any Court or otherwise to secure the ends of justice."

It is settled law that the above section does not confer any inherent power on the High Courts; what the section does is it merely recognises the fact that High Courts have inherent powers. It is accepted that the High Courts have inherent powers because they are superior courts-of-record.

The rule of inherent powers has its source in the maxim quando lex aliquid alicui concedit, concedere videtur id sine quo res ipsa esse non potest which means that when the law gives anything to anyone, it also gives all those things without which the thing itself could not exist.

Section 482 lays down as to when the inherent power may be exercised. It enumerates three purposes for which the inherent power may be exercised. The first purpose is that the inherent power may be exercised to make orders necessary to give effect to any order under the Code. The second purpose is that the inherent power may be exercised to prevent abuse of the process of any court. The third purpose is that the inherent power may be exercised otherwise to secure the ends of justice.

In this article, we are not concerned with the first two purposes, because they are not attracted for quashing of a First Information Report (FIR). We are concerned with the third purpose i.e., otherwise to secure the ends of justice.

How is this phrase "or otherwise to secure the ends of justice" to be construed? Before we look into this, we shall look at the recognition of use of punctuation marks as an aid to interpretation of statutes.

Punctuation marks have been an accepted method of statutory interpretation. In Hanlon v. Law Society, it was held as under :

“… not to take account of punctuation disregards the reality that literate people, such as parliamentary draftsmen, punctuate what they write, if not identically, at least in accordance with grammatical principles. Why should not other literate people, such as Judges, look at the punctuation in order to interpret the meaning of the legislation as accepted by Parliament?”

In Houston v. Burns, it was held that :

“…Punctuation is a rational part of English composition and is sometimes quite significantly employed. I see no reason for depriving legal documents of such significance as attaches to punctuation in other writings.”

In India, the Supreme Court has made use of punctuation marks as an aid to interpretation of statutes in the cases of AK Gopalan v. State of Madras, MK Salpekar v. Sunil Kumar Shamsunder Chaudhari, etc.

Coming back to the bare provision of Section 482 of the Code, it can be seen that only two punctuation marks are used in the body of the provision - a comma and a full stop. We are concerned, here, with the comma. Three adjectives have been used in the body of the section with just one comma in between the first and the second phrase. It is a well-recognised rule of English grammar that a comma is used to separate items in a series of three or more items. When commas are used to separate the items in a series of three or more, they are placed in between all the items; the comma before the last item of the list being optional, also known as the Oxford comma. It is also a settled rule of English grammar that a coordinating conjunction is also placed in such a case only before the last item of the series. The exception to this rule is that a comma may be used to even separate a pair of words, phrases or clauses when they contain one or more coordinating conjunctions.

In the body of the provision, the first adjectival phrase is separated from the rest two by a comma, but the second and the third phrase are not so separated.

The reason is that the second and the third adjectival phrases have been used as a single unit. To prevent abuse of the process of any Court or otherwise to secure the ends of justice have been used as a compound single phrase. Had the intention of the Legislature been to disjunctively put the three phrases in the body of the Section, they could have punctuated the Section according to the above-mentioned general rule of comma usage and could have drafted the Section changing the place of the coordinating conjunction and the comma(s) — as below:

Nothing in this Code shall be deemed to limit or affect the inherent powers of the High Court to make such orders as may be necessary to give effect to any order under this Code, to prevent abuse of the process of any Court, or otherwise to secure the ends of justice.

(The last comma also known as the oxford comma being optional.)

The intention of the Legislature in punctuating the Section in the way it has been punctuated, and using the coordinating conjunction "or" in the way it has been used, show that it intended the usage of the second and the third adjectival phrases as a single unit. If construed in this way, the phrase otherwise to secure the ends of justice would have to be construed ejusdem generis with the phrase to prevent abuse of the process of any Court.

In this regard, reliance is placed on the judgment of the apex court in Rameshwar Prasad Goyal’s case. So construed, the word "court" would have to be imported and read in the third phrase, meaning thereby that the inherent powers can be exercised to prevent abuse of the process of any court (as in the second phrase) or otherwise to secure the ends of justice in relation to any proceeding pending in any court (as in the third phrase). If the third purpose (for which inherent powers can be used) is so construed, it would mean that an FIR, which has not ripened into a final report under Section 173 of the Code - not being a proceeding pending in any court - cannot be quashed in exercise of the inherent powers under Section 482 of the Code.

The binding precedent on the subject, as shall be discussed shortly, also fortifies the view that inherent powers under Section 482 of the Code can be exercised only in relation to proceedings pending in a criminal court. Hence, an FIR cannot be quashed in the exercise of inherent powers under Section 482 of the Code.

It must be borne in mind that judgments passed with regard to the applicability of Section 561-A of the CrPC 1898 do not have any precedential value on their own, as the 1898 Code has been repealed by the 1973 Code. Commenting on the principle cessante ration cessat ipsa lex, it has been held by the apex court in State of Punjab v. Devans Modern Breweries Limited case that a decision may cease to be the law without being overruled due to changed conditions and changed law.

Since the Code came into force, there have been more than 1,500 cases in which the Supreme Court has dealt with the inherent powers under Section 482 of the Code. Before we have a look at what these judgments have laid down, it is essential to bear in mind another fundamental principle apropos the precedential value of judgments. A Constitution Bench of the apex court in Central Board of Dawoodi Bohra Community v. State of Maharashtra has held and laid down the law as follows:

  1. The law laid down by this Court in a decision delivered by a Bench of larger strength is binding on any subsequent Bench of lesser or coequal strength.

  2. A Bench of lesser quorum cannot disagree or dissent from the view of the law taken by a Bench of larger quorum. In case of doubt all that the Bench of lesser quorum can do is to invite the attention of the Chief Justice and request for the matter being placed for hearing before a Bench of larger quorum than the Bench whose decision has come up for consideration. It will be open only for a Bench of coequal strength to express an opinion doubting the correctness of the view taken by the earlier Bench of coequal strength, whereupon the matter may be placed for hearing before a Bench consisting of a quorum larger than the one which pronounced the decision laying down the law the correctness of which is doubted.

The first case in which the question of whether an FIR could be quashed in the exercise of inherent powers under Section 482 of the Code was dealt with, was in Kurukshetra University v. State of Haryana, in which it has been held as follows:

"It surprises us in the extreme that the High Court thought that in the exercise of its inherent powers under Section 482 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, it could quash a first information report. The police had not even commenced investigation into the complaint filed by the Warden of the University and no proceeding at all was pending in any court in pursuance of the FIR. It ought to be realised that inherent powers do not confer an arbitrary jurisdiction on the High Court to act according to whim or caprice. That statutory power has to be exercised sparingly, with circumspection and in the rarest of rare cases."

From 1973 till date, there has not been a judgment of a larger bench of the apex court which has considered whether or not an FIR could be quashed in the exercise of inherent powers. Nonetheless, after the decision in the Kurukshetra University case, there have been many three-judge bench decisions from the apex court and many two-judge bench decisions including the famous judgment in State of Haryana and others v. Bhajan Lal and others which have, contrary to the binding precedent in Kurukshetra University case, held that an F.I.R. can be quashed in exercise of the inherent powers mentioned in Section 482 of the Code.

In the opinion of the author, such judgments were passed in oblivion of the law laid down in the binding precedent of Kurukshetra University case, and do not lay down the correct law.

There are other judgments of the apex court of lesser bench strength which have also held that inherent powers under Section 482 can be exercised only in relation to matters pending before a criminal court. In State of Punjab v. Davinder Pal Singh Bhullar, it was held,

"The use of the word “process” implies that the proceedings are pending before the subordinate court. When reference is made to the phrase “to secure the ends of justice”, it is in fact in relation to the order passed by the subordinate court and it cannot be understood in a general connotation of the phrase. More so, while entertaining such application the proceedings should be pending in the subordinate court…"

Innumerable FIRs have been quashed by various High Courts across the country in oblivion of the law laid down in the binding precedent of Kurukshetra University case. In the author's opinion, this could not have been done in view of the clear language of Section 482 of the Code as well as the law laid down in that judgment which holds the field till date.

Shrikrishna Dagliya is the Presiding Officer at the Labour Court, Civil Judge Senior Division, Jabalpur, Madhya Pradesh.

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