Recently, the Hon’ble Supreme Court vide its judgment passed in Aroon Purie vs. State of NCT of Delhi & Ors. on 31 October 2022 (‘Judgment’), expressed certain observations on inter alia the stage at which the benefit of an exception to Section 499 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860 (‘IPC’) may be afforded to an accused.
The primary issue posed for consideration before the Hon’ble Court was whether at the stage of deciding a petition under Section 482 of the Code of Criminal Code, 1973 (‘CrPC’) could the Hon’ble Courts consider the benefit of the exceptions under Section 499 of the IPC or whether the issue ought to be decided apropos trial.
While allowing the appeal, the Hon’ble Supreme Court quashed the defamation complaint filed against the Editor-in-Chief primarily on the ground that considering the assertions and allegations made in the Complaint, nothing specific had been attributed to the Editor-in-Chief. It was also observed that the presumption under Section 7 of the Press and Regulation of Books Act, 1867 (‘Press Act’) cannot be invoked against the Editor-in-Chief, if there are no sufficient and specific allegations regarding the roles played by the said Editor in Chief. While relying upon the principles enshrined in Jawaharlal Darda & Ors. vs. Manoharrao Ganpatrao & Anr. and Rajendra Kumar Sitaram Pande vs. Uttam it was observed that if the facts so justify, the benefit as enshrined under the exceptions of Section 499 of the IPC could be extended even at the stage of adjudicating a petition filed under Section 482 of the CrPC and the same are not to be taken as a rigid principle whereby the benefit can only be afforded at the trial stage.
The parameters pertaining to the inherent powers and discretion of the Hon’ble Courts under Section 482 of the CrPC have been well known – and well read – since the time of State of Haryana vs. Bhajan Lal, whereby it was held that powers under Section 482 CrPC could be exercised either to prevent abuse of the process of any court or otherwise to secure the ends of justice. These parameters included:
(i) Where the allegations made in the Complaint or the First Information Report (‘FIR’), even if taken at the face value, do not prima facie constitute any offence or make out any case against the accused.
(ii) Where the allegations made in the FIR, or the Complaint do not disclose any cognizable offence and thus does not justify a police investigation by the police under Section 156(1) of the CrPC.
(iii) Where the uncontroverted allegations/ averments made in the FIR or the Complaint and/or the evidence collected in support of the same does not disclose the commission of any offence and does not make out any case against the accused.
(iv) Where the allegations made in the FIR, or the complaint are so absurd and inherently improbable on the basis of which no prudent person can ever reach a just conclusion that there is sufficient ground for proceeding against the accused.
(v) When the proceedings are based on mala fides, or the proceedings are maliciously instituted with an ulterior motive for wreaking vengeance on the accused.
While the Judgment examines the aspect of assumption under Section 7 of the Press Act, as also the examination of the exceptions under Section 499 CrPC, the Hon’ble Supreme Court has in fact reinforced one of the most crucial elements under criminal law – whether there are specific allegations made against an Accused, and if not, whether the accused in such a scenario ought to face the ordeal of a trial.
In fact, vide the Judgment, the Hon’ble Supreme Court while interpreting Section 7 of the Press Act has once again emphasised on the holistic and liberal reading of a provision of law. While placing reliance on case of K.M. Mathew vs. K.A. Abraham, the Court rightly observed that Section 7 of the Press Act provided a rebuttable presumption, and it will be deemed sufficient evidence unless the contrary is proved. Therefore, even if a person’s name is printed as editor in the newspaper, he/she can still show that he/she was not really the editor and had no control over the selection of the matter that was published in the newspaper.
In the case at hand, the Hon'ble Supreme Court observed that what ought to have been considered, on a bare reading of the Complaint, was whether there were sufficient and specific allegations made against the Appellant (Editor-in-Chief) which warranted a full-fledged trial against the same. This aspect requires judicial consideration at the stage of taking cognizance, and if not, then the aspect could – and should –certainly be examined under Section 482 of the CrPC.
The Judgment by the Hon’ble Supreme Court is welcome, as this will reduce unnecessary and prolonged litigation wherein an accused would be subjected to go through the entire trial where none is warranted to begin with. By this Judgment, the Hon’ble Supreme Court has once again bolstered the importance of pleading specific allegations against specific accused. This is bound to ensure that Complaints are not made in a mechanical manner or for nefarious reasons. After all, Mens Rea and Actus Reus remain the essentials of any crime which must be established (even if prima facie in a Complaint) against any person accused of an offence.
Shiv Sapra is a Partner and Ruchika Darira is a Principal Associate at DSK Legal.