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The Supreme Court on Thursday reiterated that the immunity given to public officials from criminal prosecution without State sanction would not continue after the official retires or demits office. On this aspect, the judgment rendered by a three judge Bench of Justices UU Lalit, Indu Malhotra and Krishna Murari points out,
“In S.A. Venkataraman vs. The State while dealing with the requirement of sanction (to initiate criminal prosecution of a public official/public servant) under the pari materia provisions of the Prevention of Corruption Act, 1947, it was laid down that the protection under the concerned provisions would not be available to a public servant after he had demitted his office or retired from service … The law so declared by this Court has consistently been followed.“
In the case before the Court, a former Assistant General Manager (AGM) of Vijaya Bank stood accused of having fraudulently extended loan facilities, in violation of relevant rules and regulations. Following a complaint lodged by a General Manager of the Bank, the AGM was charged with offences under Sections 419, 420, 467, 468, 471 read with Section 120B of the Indian Penal Code, 1860 and Sections 13(1)(d) and 13(2) of the Prevention of Corruption Act, 1988.
In 2015, the Additional City Civil and Sessions Judge and Principal Special Judge for CBI cases, Bangalore rejected the AGM’s plea to discharge him. However, in 2018, the High Court allowed a revision petition filed by the AGM, set aside the 2015 verdict and discharged him from the case, leading to further appeal before the Supreme Court.
The complaint was lodged against the AGM a year after he had retired from his post. In view of the same, no application was made for the grant of sanction from the government to initiate criminal prosecution against the AGM in this case.
Ordinarily, Courts cannot take cognisance of criminal allegations levelled against a public official for an act done“while acting or purporting to act in the discharge of his official duty,” unless State grants sanction to do so. This is provided for under Section 197 of the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC).
Further Section 19 of the Prevention of Corruption Act also mandates the grant of such sanction before prosecuting public servants, in order to protect such officials from being entangled in frivolous or false cases.
However, since in this case, the accused had retired from service before the criminal complaint was lodged, the question was whether his earlier protection from criminal prosecution would continue even though he was no longer with the public bank.
The High Court had opined that the protection available to a public servant against unsanctioned criminal prosecution should be available after retirement as well. Hence, it allowed the AGM’s plea to discharge him from the case, although the Court found that there was sufficient material to frame criminal charges against him.
What the Supreme Court held
Relying on a number of earlier judgments on the subject, the Supreme Court ultimately ruled that protection available to public servants would not be available after he retires. The judgment states
“The High Court was … not justified in observing ‘that the protection available to a public servant while in service, should also be available after his retirement’. That statement is completely inconsistent with the law laid down by this Court in connection with requirement of sanction under Section 19 of the Act.“
The Apex Court proceeded to highlight that acts done using the public office as a mere cloak for unlawful gains are also not protected by these immunity provisions.
“… it has consistently been laid down that the protection under Section 197 of the Code is available to the public servants when an offence is said to have been committed ‘while acting or purporting to act in discharge of their official duty’, but where the acts are performed using the office as a mere cloak for unlawful gains, such acts are not protected. The statements of law in some of the earlier decisions were culled out by this Court in Inspector of Police and another vs. Battenapatla Venkata Ratnam and another.”
In view of these observations, the Supreme Court set aside the High Court order and directed the accused to present himself to the Special Court (Trial Court) on the next Court date.
[Read the Judgment]