India: Quashing Of Criminal Complaints Having A Civil Nature: What The Supreme Court Held

Last Updated: 19 June 2019
Article by Anuj Berry, Malak Bhatt and PSS Bhargava

Recently, a Division Bench of the Supreme Court comprising Justice L. Nageswara Rao and Justice MR Shah in Sau. Kamal Shivaji Pokarnekar v. The State of Maharashtra1, held that criminal complaints cannot be quashed merely because the allegations made therein appear to be of a civil nature.

Brief background

The Appellant, in this case, filed a complaint in 2008 and accused the Respondents of forgery and preparing false documents. The complaint was sent for investigation and the police submitted a report stating that the matter appeared to be of a civil nature. However, the Trial Court directed issuance of process to the Respondents.

The High Court of Bombay set aside the process issued by the Trial Court pursuant to its powers under Section 482 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973 ("CrPC") on the ground that the dispute was of a civil nature, and criminal proceedings against the Respondents would be an abuse of the process of law.

Section 482 CrPC is the inherent power of the High Court with respect to criminal proceedings. The High Court can inter alia quash criminal proceedings in order to prevent the abuse of process of the court and secure the ends of justice under this provision.

What the Court held

The Supreme Court reiterated the settled position of law that the Magistrate must not undertake any steps to determine whether the materials on record would lead to a conviction or not at the stage of taking cognizance of offence and issuing summons. The standard that the court prescribes for quashing of criminal proceedings is that if on perusal of the complaint the court is able to come to a positive determination that the offence alleged has been made out, then the court should not quash the same. However, in prescribing such standard the court also attaches a caveat that offences should be made out from the complaint on a prima facie basis and the same should not entail any meticulous analysis of the case.

The Supreme Court laid emphasis on the principles laid down in two of its previous judgements namely, State of Karnataka v. M. Devendrappa2 and Indian Oil Corporation v. NEPC India Ltd. & Ors.3 and held that quashing of criminal proceedings is called for only when the complaint does not disclose any offence, or the complaint is frivolous, vexatious, or oppressive.

The Supreme Court further clarified that defences available during a trial and facts/aspects whose establishment during the trial may lead to acquittal cannot form the basis of quashing a criminal complaint.

The Division Bench also made the key observation that criminal complaints cannot be quashed only on the ground that the allegations made therein appear to be of a civil nature, if the ingredients of the alleged offence are prima facie made out in the complaint.

Based on the above considerations, the judgement of the High Court was set aside by the Supreme Court.

Analysis and the way forward

A growing tendency in business circles to convert purely civil disputes into criminal cases has been observed in the past few years.4 This is on account of a prevalent impression that civil law remedies are time-consuming and do not adequately protect the rights and interests of citizens. There is also an impression that if a person is entangled in a criminal case, the likelihood of imminent settlement of the dispute increases. Efforts by litigants to settle civil disputes and claims, which do not involve any criminal offence, by applying pressure through criminal prosecution have been severely criticised and discouraged by courts.5 Courts have readily used their power to quash such vexatious criminal proceedings under Section 482 CrPC. The Supreme Court has held that a criminal complaint should be quashed when the matter is essentially civil in nature and has been given a cloak of a criminal offence as the continuation of such proceedings will amount to an abuse of process of the court.6

In the above context, it becomes essential to recognise that often legitimate grievances of litigants may be overlooked by courts eager to quash criminal complaints having certain characteristics of civil nature, sometimes even without attributing any reasons for the same.7 This judgement of the Supreme Court attempts to emphasise on the rights of such legitimate litigants to pursue criminal remedies, while at the same time balancing it against the right of individuals to be free from frivolous criminal proceedings.

The judgment serves to act as a restraint on the ability of the courts to set aside criminal proceedings solely on the basis that the allegations appear to be of a civil nature and thus a court can quash criminal proceedings only when it comes to the determination that the matter is essentially civil in nature and has been given a cloak of a criminal offence.

Therefore, this judgement in a way raises the threshold for quashing of criminal complaints and ensures that a blanket quashing of complaints does not take place. While the approach is laudable, it remains to be seen as to how this judgment is used and read to challenge petitions filed before High Courts for seeking quashing of criminal proceedings, even where the dispute between the parties has a civil bearing.

Footnotes

1. 2019 SCC OnLine SC 182.

2. 2015 (3) SCC 424.

3. AIR 2006 SC 2780.

4. See Indian Oil Corporation v. NEPC India Ltd. & Ors., AIR 2006 SC 2780.

5. See G. Sagar Suri v. State of UP, AIR 2000 SC 754.

6. Prof. R.K. Vijayasarathy v. Sudha Seetharam, 2019 SCC OnLine SC 208.

7. See Indian Oil Corporation v. NEPC India Ltd. & Ors., AIR 2006 SC 2780.

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