India: Crime Never Dies

"Nullum tempus occurrit regi", which originated in the 1250s, was first used by Bracton in his De legibus et consuetudinibus Angliae. The literal meaning of this maxim is that the crown may decide to proceed with action that may be barred by time and that the lapse of time does not bar the right of the crown. On the other hand, "vigilantibus et non dormientibus jura subveniunt", which is a maxim of Roman law, implies that the law shall only assist those who are vigilant and not those who are careless or lazy about their rights.

Chapter XXXVI of the Code or Criminal Procedure, comprising of Sections 467 to 473, prescribes distinct limitation periods for taking cognizance of various offences, depending upon the gravity of those offences interlinked with the punishments, respectively. The rationale behind the inclusion of a period of limitation was that the testimony of witnesses becomes weaker with the lapse of time and memory and consequently the chances of errors in judgments increase, since the evidence becomes weaker. In addition to this, the period of limitation would put pressure on the system of the criminal prosecution to ensure that the offender is convicted and punished quickly to ensure speedy justice. The deterrent effect that the criminal justice system aims at, will stand defeated in case the punishment has not been granted before the memory of the offence gets washed off from the heads of those affected by it. This Chapter is clearly in consonance with the concept of fairness of trial, as enshrined in Article 21 of the Constitution of India.

The object of the Legislature, while introducing a period of limitation can be ascertained from the statement of the Joint Committee of the Parliament, where it was stated that:

"These are new clauses prescribing periods of limitation on a graded scale for launching a criminal prosecution in certain cases. At present there is no period of limitation for criminal prosecution and a court cannot throw out a complaint or a police report solely on the ground of delay although inordinate delay may be a ground for entertaining doubts about the truth of the prosecution story. Periods of limitation have been prescribed for criminal prosecution in the laws of many countries and the Committee feels that it will be desirable to prescribe such periods in the Code as recommended by the Law Commission".

Section 468 of the Code of Criminal Procedure lays down the period of limitation for taking cognizance of an offence. According to this Section, if an offence is punishable with fine only, the period of limitation shall be six months and if the offence is punishable with imprisonment for a term that does not exceed one year, the period of limitation is one year. Section 468, further makes it clear that if the offence is punishable with imprisonment for a term exceeding one year but not exceeding three years, the period of limitation shall be three years. However, this Section does not lay down the period of limitation for offences punishable with imprisonment exceeding three years. Meaning thereby there is no outer limit qua the limitation in relation to the offences having punishment for three years or more. Thus, Section 473 of the Code of Criminal Procedure enables the Court to take cognizance of an offence after the expiry of the period of limitation, if it is satisfied on the facts and in the circumstances of the case that the delay has been properly explained or that it is necessary to do so in the interests of justice.

In Asst. Customs Collector, Bombay v. L.R. Melwani, AIR (1970) SC 962, 965, the Supreme Court held that:

"The question of delay in filing a complaint may be a circumstance to be taken into consideration in arriving at the final verdict. But by itself it affords no ground for dismissing the compliant".

The five judges' bench of the Supreme Court of India, consisting of P. Sathasivam CJ, Dr.B.S.Chauhan, Ranjana P.Desai, Ranjan Gogoi and S.A.Bobde, JJ, in the case titled as " Sarah Mathew Vs. Institute of Cardio Vascular Diseases & Ors."; 2014(2) SCC 62, sought to ensure justice to the citizens of the country, by striking a balance between the legal maxim "nullum tempus aut locus occurit regi', and the legal maxim 'vigilantibus et non dormientibus, jura subveniunt'.

This aforesaid decision of the Apex Court delivered and penned down by Justice Ranjana. P. Desai puts a rest to the conflicting views expressed by the court in the following authorities:-

  • Krishna Pillai Vs. T.A. Rajendran and Anr.; (1990) supp. SCC 121, where the Court stated that no court shall take cognizance of any offence under the Child Marriage Restraint Act, 1929 after the expiry of one year from the date on which the offence is alleged to have been committed.
  • Bharat Damodar kale Vs. State of Andhra Pradesh; (2003) 8 SCC 559, where it was held that for the purpose of computing the period of limitation , the relevant date if the date of filing of complaint or initiating criminal proceedings and not the date of taking cognizance by a Magistrate or issuance of a process by court. The aforesaid "Bharat Kale", was further referred and relied upon in the judgment titled as "Japani Sahoo Vs. Chandra Sekhar Mohanty; (2007) 7 SCC 394, where the Court upheld the decision given by it in the "Bharat Kale" case and stated that mere delay in approaching a Court of Law would not by itself afford a ground for dismissing the case though it may be a relevant circumstance in reaching a final verdict.

In the aforesaid "Sarah Mathew" case, reliance has been placed upon the Law Commission's Report and the report of the Joint Parliamentary Committee, which made it clear that Chapter XXXVI, dealing with the limitation for taking Cognizance of certain offences had been inserted into the Code of Criminal Procedure to make the prosecution of complaints a quick process and consequently make the criminal justice system more orderly, efficient and just. The Court states that the object of putting a bar of limitation, in light of Article 21 of the Constitution, was to prevent the parties from filing a case after a long time, which many times, results in the disappearance of material evidence and filing of vexatious and belated prosecutions long after the date of the offence. However, Chapter XXXVI of the Code of Criminal Procedure does not undermine the right of the accused. It aims to strike a balance between the interest of the complainant and the interest of the accused. While this limitation encourages diligence by providing for limitation, it does not intend to throw out all prosecutions on the ground of delay. It has further been stated that where the legislature wanted to treat certain offences differently, it provided for limitation in the section itself, for instance, Section 198(6) and 199(5) of the Code of Criminal Procedure.

The Supreme Court, in "Sarah Mathew" case, laid down the meaning and the scope of term 'taking cognizance'. When on a petition or complaint being filed before a Magistrate, he applies his mind or takes judicial notice of an offence, with a view to initiate proceedings in respect of an offence which is said to have taken place, the Magistrate is said to have taken cognizance of the offence. The Court states that Section 473, which provides for the extension of the period of limitation in certain cases, is a nonobstante clause, which has an overriding effect on Section 468 of the Criminal Procedure Code. Reliance has been placed on the decision of the Court in Vanka Radhamanohari vs. Vanka Vankata Reddy and Ors. (1993) 3 SCC 4, where the Court observed that the basic difference between section 5 of the Limitation Act and Section 473 of the Code of Criminal Procedure is that, in order to exercise the power under Section 5 of the Limitation act, the onus is on the applicant to satisfy the court that there was sufficient cause for condonation of delay, whereas, Section 473 enjoins a duty on the court to examine not only whether such delay has been explained, but as to whether it is the requirement of justice to ignore such delay.

The Court, while dealing with the two contradicting maxims, 'vigililantibus et non dormientibus, jura subveniunt' and 'nullum tempus aut locus occurrit regi', states that Chapter XXXVI of the Code of Criminal Procedure which provides the limitation period for certain types of offences for which lesser sentence is provided, draws support from the maxim 'vigilantibus et non dormientibus jura subveniunt" and that even certain offences such as section 384 or 465 of the Indian Penal Code, which have lesser punishment, may have serious social consequences and hence, the provision for the condonation of delay was made. The Court was thus, of the opinion that Chapter XXXVI is a part of the Code of Criminal procedure, which is a procedural law and it is a well settled principle that procedural laws must be liberally construed to serve as handmaid of justice and not as its mistresses.

Hence, the Court, in this matter, held that the decision given by the Court in the "Krishna Pillai", matter would not be the authority for deciding as to what is the relevant date for computing the period of limitation under Section 468 of the Code of Criminal procedure since in that case, the Court was dealing Section 9 of the Child Marriage Restraint Act, 1929, which is a special Act and there is no reference to Section 468 or 473 of the Code of Criminal Procedure in that judgment. Also, the Hon'ble Supreme observed that the said judgment is restricted to its own facts and constitution bench does not endorse the view taken in "Krishna Pillai", which was by 3 Judges Bench. Finally, the Hon'ble Supreme Court in "Sarah Mathew" (supra), held that "Bharat Kale" (2003(8) SCC 559) which is followed in "Japani Sahoo" (2007(7) SCC 394) lays down the correct law.

In the light of the same, the Court held that the relevant date, for the purpose of computing the period of limitation under Section 468 of the Criminal Procedure Code is the date of filing of the complaint or the date of institution of prosecution and not the date on which a Magistrate takes Cognizance.

One of the most well-recognized principles of criminal jurisprudence is that "crime never dies'. Even though this concept has been well-established, its implementation raised several questions with regard to the trigger point for computing the period of limitation. The Supreme Court, in this landmark judgment has provided a much-required clarification as to the ambiguity created by the contradicting views qua the running points with respect to limitation.

* Shweta Vashist Intern [5th Year, University School of Law and Legal Studies]

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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