Selective leaks to media affect rights of accused and victim: Supreme Court transfers dowry death case to CBI

While it acknowledged that the "media does have a legitimate stake in fair reporting," the Court stated that media leaks, "can be used to derail the administration of criminal justice."
Selective leaks to media affect rights of accused and victim: Supreme Court transfers dowry death case to CBI
Indu Malhotra, DY Chandrachud, Indira Banerjee

A Justice DY Chandrachud led bench of the Supreme Court on Thursday observed that selective divulging of information to media or media leaks "can be used to derail the administration of criminal justice."

The Court made the observation while setting aside the anticipatory bail granted to the in-laws of a deceased woman in a dowry death case, while also transferring the case to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI).

The bench of Justices Chandrachud, Indu Malhotra and Indira Banerjee also observed that there is no embargo on the Supreme Court from transferring an investigation to the CBI even after a charge-sheet has been submitted by police.

The Allahabad High Court had earlier granted anticipatory bail to the parents-in-law, brother-in-law and sister-in-law of the deceased woman, who were accused in the dowry death case. The High Court had taken up the case on appeal after the sessions court had rejected the plea for anticipatory bail.

The High Court observed that the FIR prima facie appeared to be engineered to implicate the applicants and that there is no corelation between the various allegations leveled in the FIR. However, the Bench pulled up the Uttar Pradesh Police for its investigation, commenting that the same "leaves much to be desired."

The High Court allowed the bail plea 15 days after the sessions court rejected the same. However, no action was taken by the police in the interim. The Bench observed that a suicide note by the deceased was leaked to the media which exonerated the family of any harassment or pressure.

The Supreme Court found that the sequence, in this case, appears to follow familiar patterns.

"Immediate publicity was given to the alleged suicide note. These examples are now becoming familiar. Selective disclosures to the media affect the rights of the accused in some cases and the rights of victims and families in others," said the Supreme Court.

Selective disclosures to the media affect the rights of the accused in some cases and the rights of victims and families in others.
Supreme Court

While the top court agreed that the "media does have a legitimate stake in fair reporting," it cautioned that the disclosure of material which may eventually form a crucial part of the evidentiary record in a criminal trial, "can be used to derail the administration of criminal justice."

The Court further held that the investigating officer has a duty to investigate when information about the commission of a cognizable offence is brought to their attention.

"Unfortunately, this role is being compromised by the manner in which selective leaks take place in the public realm. This is not fair to the accused because it pulls the rug below the presumption of innocence. It is not fair to the victims of crime, if they have survived the crime, and where they have not, to their families," the Supreme Court observed.

The Court added that "neither the victims nor their families have a platform to answer the publication of lurid details about their lives and circumstances."

The Court went on to reject the argument that the FIR does not question the authenticity of the suicide note as the father was not in a condition to read newspapers.

"The daughter of the appellant had died in mysterious circumstances. The family had completed the last rites. To expect that they should be scouring the pages of the print and electronic media before reporting the crime is a mockery of the human condition," the Supreme Court said.

The Court, while cancelling anticipatory bail granted to the accused, opined that the "grant of anticipatory bail in such a serious offence would operate to obstruct the investigation."

The Bench noted that, in this case, the charge-sheet has been submitted to the competent court on 5 November 2020.

The Bench said that the submission of the charge-sheet does not oust the jurisdiction of a superior court when the investigation is tainted and there is a real likelihood of justice being deflected.

"When the Court feels that the investigation by the police has not been in the proper perspective and that in order to do complete justice, where the facts of the case demand that the investigation be handed over to a specialized agency, a superior court is not bereft of the authority to do so," the Court said.

The Bench further observed that the conduct of the investigating authorities in this case, from the stage of arriving at the scene of occurrence to the filing of the charge-sheet, do not inspire confidence in the robustness of the process. As such, it directed the transfer of further investigation in the case, invoking powers under Article 142 of the Constitution.

"It would indeed be a travesty if this Court were to ignore the glaring deficiencies in the investigation conducted so far, irrespective of the stage of the proceedings or the nature of the question before this Court," the Supreme Court said.

Read the judgment:

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Dr Ramesh Kumar Mangla vs Anita Agarwal.pdf
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