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The Supreme Court has clarified that a Magistrate has powers to order further investigation in a criminal case even after it has taken cognizance and issued summons in the matter based on the police chargesheet.
The ruling was passed by a three-judge Bench comprising of Justices Rohinton Nariman, Surya Kant and V Ramasubramanian which was called to decide on the following legal question, i.e.
Whether, after a charge-sheet is filed by the police, the Magistrate has the power to order further investigation, and if so, up to what stage of a criminal proceeding?
The Court ultimately opined,
“There is no good reason given… as to why a Magistrate’s powers to order further investigation would suddenly cease upon process being issued, and an accused appearing before the Magistrate, while concomitantly, the power of the police to further investigate the offence continues right till the stage the trial commences.”
While this is the case, the Court observed that various precedents have already established that “criminal trial does not begin after cognizance is taken, but only after charges are framed.”
In effect, the Supreme Court has held that a Magistrate can order further investigation into a cognizable offence, even in the post-cognisance stage, right up until the charges are framed in the case. The Bench also observed that such an interpretation is crucial in view of the mandate in Article 21 of the Constitution to ensure a fair trial. As noted in the judgment,
“[The] Magistrate’s power under Section 156(3) of the CrPC is very wide, for it is this judicial authority that must be satisfied that a proper investigation by the police takes place. To ensure that a “proper investigation” takes place in the sense of a fair and just investigation by the police … Article 21 of the Constitution of India mandates that all powers necessary … are available to the Magistrate to ensure a proper investigation… [This], without doubt, would include the ordering of further investigation after a report is received by him under Section 173(2); and which power would continue to enure in such Magistrate at all stages of the criminal proceedings until the trial itself commences.”
The Court added that the wide nature of the Magistrate’s powers in this regard is also evident from the definition of “investigation” under the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC), read with the provisions conferring Magistrates to order such investigation.
“Indeed, even textually, the “investigation” referred to in Section 156(1) of the CrPC would, as per the definition of “investigation” under Section 2(h), include all proceedings for collection of evidence conducted by a police officer; which would undoubtedly include proceedings by way of further investigation under Section 173(8) of the CrPC.”
The relevant provisions considered by the Bench in the matter were Sections 156(3) and 173(8) of the CrPC. Section 156(3) confers on Magistrates the power to order further investigation into cognizable offences after the registration of the First Information Report (FIR). Section 173(8) allows the police to conduct further investigation even after it has forwarded a final report to the Magistrate.
The case before the Court concerned a challenge to a Gujarat High Court judgment that had ruled that the Magistrate’s power to order further investigation under Section 156(3), CrPC ceases once the Magistrate is in the post-cognizance stage of criminal proceedings.
The factual dispute concerned allegations of land grabbing over certain agricultural land in Surat. Applications for further investigation filed by the original accused in the case were rejected by the trial court. Whereas a Sessions Court allowed their applications on appeal, the High Court, thereafter, reversed the Sessions Court verdict. This prompted the accused to move the Supreme Court on further appeal.
The Supreme Court, in turn, found itself in square disagreement with the stance taken by the High Court as far as the scope of powers conferred on a Magistrate to order further investigation under Section 156(3). The Bench observed,
“To say that … the supervisory jurisdiction of the Magistrate suddenly ceases mid- way through the pre-trial proceedings [while the police may conduct further investigation even in the post-cognisance stage, until charges are framed], would amount to a travesty of justice, as certain cases may cry out for further investigation so that an innocent person is not wrongly arraigned as an accused or that a prima facie guilty person is not so left out.
There is no warrant for such a narrow and restrictive view of the powers of the Magistrate, particularly when such powers are traceable to Section 156(3) read with Section 156(1), Section 2(h), and Section 173(8) of the CrPC … would be available at all stages of the progress of a criminal case before the trial actually commences.”
The Court also noted that such powers should be exercised suo motu by the Magistrate himself, depending on the facts of each case.
“Whether further investigation should or should not be ordered is within the discretion of the learned Magistrate who will exercise such discretion on the facts of each case and in accordance with law. If, for example, fresh facts come to light which would lead to inculpating or exculpating certain persons, arriving at the truth and doing substantial justice in a criminal case are more important than avoiding further delay being caused in concluding the criminal proceeding…”
In view of these observations, the Court set aside the Gujarat High Court judgment in so far as its interpretation of the powers of the Magistrate under Section 156(3), CrPC was concerned.
Several prior rulings that had concluded that the Magistrate has no powers under section 156(3) in the post-cognisance stage were overruled as well. Among the cases so overruled was the Supreme Court’s 1976 two-judge Bench decision in Devarapalli Lakshminarayana Reddy & Ors. v. V Narayana Reddy & Ors, in which regard the present Bench observed,
“Section 2(h) is not noticed by the aforesaid judgment at all, resulting in the erroneous finding in law that the power under Section 156(3) can only be exercised at the pre-cognizance stage.“
On the facts of the case, the Bench noted that there was no scope for interfering with the High Court verdict, although it directed the registration of an FIR against some of the parties based on certain material submitted containing serious allegations against them.
The trial in the matter was also directed to be put on hold until the Magistrate decides on whether to take cognizance of any offence that could be made out in the FIR. If any offence is made out thus, the Magistrate may thereafter decide whether a joint trial should be carried out in the matter or not.