Published on: 25 December 2022 at 22:18 IST
While taking a very strong exception for unexplained inordinate delay, the Apex Court in a remarkable, robust, rational and recent judgment titled Hasmukhlal D Vora & Anr vs The State of Tamil Nadu in Criminal Appeal No. 2310 of 2022 and cited in 2022 LiveLaw (SC) 1033 that was pronounced as recently as on December 16, 2022 in the exercise of its criminal appellate jurisdiction has laid down unequivocally that unexplained inordinate delay can be considered as a ‘very crucial factor’ for quashing a criminal complaint.
We must note that there was no explanation for the extraordinary delay of more than four years between the initial site inspection, the show cause notice, and the complaint.
The Court made it clear that while inordinate delay in itself may not be ground for quashing of a criminal complaint, unexplained inordinate delay of such length must be taken into consideration as a very crucial factor as grounds for quashing a criminal complaint.
While the court does not expect a full-blown investigation at the stage of a criminal complaint, however, in such cases where the accused has been subjected to the anxiety of a potential initiation of criminal proceedings for such a length of time, it is only reasonable for the court to expect bare minimum evidence from the Investigating Authorities.
At the very outset, this notable judgment authored by Hon’ble Mr Justice Krishna Murari for a Bench of the Apex Court comprising of himself and Hon’ble Mr Justice S Ravindra Bhat sets the ball rolling by first and foremost putting forth in para 2 that, “The present appeal is directed against the final order dated 23.08.2021 passed by the High Court of Madras (hereinafter referred to as “High Court”) in Criminal O.P. No. 6445 of 2018, where the Appellants’ plea under Section 482 of the Cr.PC to quash the criminal complaint against them was dismissed.”
To put things in perspective, the Bench then envisages in para 3 that, “Briefly, the facts relevant for the purpose of this Appeal are as follows:
I. Appellant No.1 is the proprietor of an established company under the name of M/s. Chem Pharm, a trader of raw material chemicals used in food, food supplements, medicinal preparations etc. Appellant No.2 is the son and employee of Appellant No. 1.
II. During the course of their business, the Appellants purchased 75 Kg of pyridoxal-5-phosphate (as 3 x 25Kg packs) from one M/s Antoine & Becouerel Organic Chemical Co., vide invoice dated 19.03.2013.
III. On 19.11.2013, the then Drug Inspector, Kodambakkam Range, inspected the Appellants’ premises and alleged contravention of S.18(c) of the Drugs and Cosmetics Act 1940 read with Rule 65(5)(1)(b) of the Drugs and Cosmetics Rules 1945. It was claimed that the Appellants broke up the bulk quantity of pyridoxal-5-phosphate and sold it to different distributors.
IV. It is alleged that the Appellant had broken up the bulk quantity of raw materials into various pack sizes containing quantities 0.5kg, 1kg, 10kg and 15kg and had sold the same to various drug manufacturers.
V. On 30.03.2016, the Drug Inspector issued a show cause memo to the Appellants after nearly three years. The Appellants, after the show cause memo on 02.04.2016, submitted their reply to the same.
VI. On 11.08.2017, after a further lapse of one year and four months, the Respondent, filed a complaint against the Appellants.”
As it turned out, the Bench then states in para 4 that, “The Appellants, in the High Court of Madras, sought for quashing of the above mentioned complaint, and the same was dismissed vide impugned order dated 23.08.2021 on the grounds that a trial was necessary to ascertain the facts of the case, and an order was passed to expedite the trial. The relevant part of the order is extracted below:
“Though several grounds have been raised by the learned counsel for the Appellants, however, this Court is of the opinion the issue is a triable issue and the grounds raised by the counsel for the Appellants are all factual in nature, and it requires an appreciation of evidence, and this Court cannot decide the same in exercise of its jurisdiction under Section 482 of Criminal Procedure Code. It is left open to the Appellants to raise all the grounds before the Court, and the same shall be considered on its own merits and in accordance with the law. This Court is not inclined to interfere with the proceedings pending before the Court below.””
Needless to say, the Bench then states in para 5 that, “Being aggrieved by the same, the Appellants filed the present Appeal, seeking to quash the criminal complaint against them.”
While citing the relevant case law, the Bench then enunciates in para 9 that, “This Court, in State of Haryana & Ors. Vs Bhajan Lal & Ors. 1 , has laid down broad guidelines for quashing a criminal complaint as under:-
“In the backdrop of the interpretation of the various relevant provisions of the Code under Chapter XIV and of the principles of law enunciated by this Court in a series of decisions relating to the exercise of the extraordinary power under Article 226 or the inherent powers under Section 482 of the Code which we have extracted and reproduced above, we give the following categories of cases by way of illustration wherein such power could be exercised either to prevent abuse of the process of any court or otherwise to secure the ends of justice, though it may not be possible to lay down any precise, clearly defined and sufficiently channelized and inflexible guidelines or rigid formulae and to give an exhaustive list of myriad kinds of cases wherein such power should be exercised.
(1) Where the allegations made in the first information report or the complaint, even if they are taken at their face value and accepted in their entirety, do not prima facie constitute any offence or make out a case against the accused.
(2) Where the allegations in the first information report and other materials, if any, accompanying the FIR do not disclose a cognizable offence, justifying an investigation by police officers under Section 156(1) of the Code except under an order of a Magistrate within the purview of Section 155(2) of the Code.
(3) Where the uncontroverted allegations made in the FIR or complaint and the evidence collected in support of the same do not disclose the commission of any offence and make out a case against the accused.
(4) Where, the allegations in the FIR do not constitute a cognizable offence but constitute only a non-cognizable offence, no investigation is permitted by a police officer without an order of a Magistrate as contemplated under Section 155(2) of the Code.
(5) Where the allegations made in the FIR or complaint are so absurd and inherently improbable on the basis of which no prudent person can ever reach a just conclusion that there is sufficient ground for proceeding against the accused.
(6) Where there is an express legal bar engrafted in any of the provisions of the Code or the concerned Act (under which a criminal proceeding is instituted) to the institution and continuance of the proceedings and/or where there is a specific provision in the Code or the concerned Act, providing efficacious redress for the grievance of the aggrieved party.
(7) Where a criminal proceeding is manifestly attended with mala fide and/or where the proceeding is maliciously instituted with an ulterior motive for wreaking vengeance on the accused and with a view to spite him due to private and personal grudge.””
It would be worthwhile to mention that the Bench hastens to add in para 19 stating that, “It is also worth mentioning that the Respondent has made no effort to prove that the alleged substance is only a drug and not a food manufacturing substance.
No scientific evidence or otherwise has been furnished to prove that the alleged substance is solely used for manufacturing drug and not food items. Prima Facie, due to the lack of evidence adduced by the Respondent in the four-year period between the initial enquiry and the complaint, this court cannot presume that the alleged substance can only be classified as a “drug”.”
Be it noted, the Bench observes in para 23 that, “There has been a gap of more than four years between the initial investigation and the filing of the complaint, and even after lapse of substantial amount of time, no evidence has been provided to sustain the claims in the complaint.
As held by this Court in Bijoy Singh & Anr. Vs State Of Bihar (2002) 9 SCC 147, inordinate delay, if not reasonably explained, can be fatal to the case of the prosecution. The relevant extract from the judgment is extracted below:-
“Delay wherever found is required to be explained by the prosecution. If the delay is reasonably explained, no adverse inference can be drawn, but failure to explain the delay would require the Court to minutely examine the prosecution version for ensuring itself as to whether any innocent person has been implicated in the crime or not,”.
“Insisting upon the accused to seek an explanation of the delay is not the requirement of law. It is always for the prosecution to explain such a delay and if reasonable, plausible and sufficient explanation is tendered, no adverse inference can be drawn against it”.
As we see, the Bench discloses in para 24 that, “In the present case, the Respondent has provided no explanation for the extraordinary delay of more than four years between the initial site inspection, the show cause notice, and the complaint. In fact, the absence of such an explanation only prompts the Court to infer some sinister motive behind initiating the criminal proceedings.”
Most significantly, the Bench minces no words to hold in para 25 that, “While inordinate delay in itself may not be ground for quashing of a criminal complaint, in such cases, unexplained inordinate delay of such length must be taken into consideration as a very crucial factor as grounds for quashing a criminal complaint.”
Frankly speaking, the Bench then points out in para 26 that, “While this court does not expect a full-blown investigation at the stage of a criminal complaint, however, in such cases where the accused has been subjected to the anxiety of a potential initiation of criminal proceedings for such a length of time, it is only reasonable for the court to expect bare-minimum evidence from the Investigating Authorities.”
Most remarkably, the Bench then seeks to make it pretty clear in para 27 that, “At the cost of repetition, we again state that the purpose of filing a complaint and initiating criminal proceedings must exist solely to meet the ends of justice, and the law must not be used as a tool to harass the accused. The law, is meant to exist as a shield to protect the innocent, rather than it being used as a sword to threaten them.”
While continuing in the same vein, the Bench then holds in para 28 that, “It must be noted that the High Court while passing the impugned judgment, has failed to take into consideration to the facts and circumstances of the case.
While it is true that the quashing of a criminal complaint must be done only in the rarest of rare cases, it is still the duty of the High Court to look into each and every case with great detail to prevent miscarriage of justice. The law is a sacrosanct entity that exists to serve the ends of justice, and the courts, as protectors of the law and servants of the law, must always ensure that frivolous cases do not pervert the sacrosanct nature of the law.”
Furthermore, the Bench then directs in para 29 that, “In view of above facts and discussions, the impugned order dated 23.08.2021 passed by the High Court is not liable to be sustained and is hereby set aside. The proceedings of C.C. No. 6351 of 2017 pending in the Court of Metropolitan Magistrate IV, Saidapet, Chennai stands quashed.”
Finally, the Bench then concludes by holding in para 30 that, “Accordingly, the appeal stands allowed.”
All told, we thus see that the Apex Court has sought to make it pretty clear that unexplained inordinate delay can be a very crucial factor in quashing a criminal complaint. What the Apex Court has held in this leading case must definitely be adhered to without fail by all the Courts in quashing a criminal complaint in any given case. No denying it!
Sanjeev Sirohi, Advocate