The Hon’ble Supreme Court has fortunately intervened in a matter wherein the Madras High Court could be seen attempting to completely disregard the principles of natural justice which ought to be followed especially in a criminal proceeding. The 3 Bench Judge in S.P. Velumani Versus Arappor Iyakkam and Ors., Criminal Appeal No. 867 of 2022 had a chance to deal with a criminal proceeding which took a complete u-turn once the Government in the State changed.
The present Appellant was a Cabinet Minister in the State of Tamil Nadu from the year 2014. The Respondent No. 1 filed a complaint before the Director, Directorate of Vigilance and Anti-Corruption and Superintendent of Police, Anti-Corruption Bureau, CBI. The complaints alleged that the Appellant, while he was serving as a Minister, misused his powers to influence the tender process and ensured that tenders were awarded to his close aides. Since no action was taken, the Respondent No. 1 filed a Writ Petition before the Madras High Court seeking a mandamus directing the Director, Directorate of Vigilance and Anti-Corruption to register a FIR on the basis of the complaint filed by him and to constitute a Special Investigation Team for the same.
The Madras High Court, based on the apprehension expressed by the Respondent No. 1 that the Appellant is one of the senior ministers in the Cabinet and that the investigation is being carried out by an officer holding the rank of only a Deputy Superintendent of Police, directed a preliminary enquiry to be carried out by the Superintendent of Police, Directorate of Vigilance and Anti-Corruption wherein its progress is to be monitored by the Director of Vigilance and Anti-Corruption. A status report was filed before the High Court and consequently time was granted to complete the preliminary enquiry.
On 16th December, 2019, the Investigating Officer appointed by the High Court completed the preliminary enquiry and submitted a final report to the Director of Vigilance and Anti-Corruption. Meanwhile, the State Government filed an Application in the Writ Petition before the High Court stating that the Government of Tamil Nadu decided to accept the report on the preliminary enquiry, which concluded that the commission of cognizable offence had not been made out against the minister. In view of this, the High Court directed the Director of Vigilance and Anti-Corruption to produce the aforesaid enquiry report in a sealed cover.
Subsequently, there was a change in the political dispensation of the State Government. Interestingly, the now State Government, while relying upon a report of the Comptroller and Auditor General of India, recanted its earlier stand and an order was passed by the High Court allowing the State Government to go back on its words and granted time to conduct further investigations. The High Court further observed that “The State should spare no effort in getting to the bottom of the matter and proceed against those found to be responsible for the irregularities.”
Relying on these observations, the State registered a FIR on 09.08.2021, against the Appellant and other Accused persons under Sections 420 and 409 read with Section 120B of the Indian Penal Code and Section 13(2) read with Sections 13(1)(c) and 13(1)(d) of the Prevention of Corruption Act read with Section 109 of the Indian Penal Code.
The Appellant filed an Application seeking a copy of the preliminary enquiry report and documents relied on as well as the decision taken by the Vigilance Commission. The High Court rejected the Application on the grounds that the law has to be allowed to take its own course and under Section 207 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973, if the preliminary report forms the basis for any of the charges sought to be framed and forms a part of the chargesheet, a copy of such preliminary report may be made available to the Appellant from the trial court. Aggrieved by the aforesaid order, the Appellant filed the present appeal.
The Hon’ble Apex Court opined that the High Court had committed a patent error in not taking the matter to its logical conclusion when the preliminary report was filed stating no cognizable offence was made out. It further observed that without considering the material before it and by merely relying on the submissions made on behalf of the State, the High Court made sweeping observations which were prejudicial to the Appellant, and consequently led to a FIR being registered. The 3 Bench Judge came down heavily on the High Court, further observing that it failed to even peruse the report and instead left the decision completely in the hands of the State Government and such an approach could not be countenanced in law.
When the State Government changed its stand, the High Court neither provided the Appellant an opportunity to defend himself, nor sought a reasoned justification from the State for having turned turtleThe initial Affidavit filed by the State was categorical that they did not intend to pursue action against the Appellant. However, the subsequent change of stand by the State clearly contradicts the expectation brought about by the initial affidavit. The principles of natural justice demanded that the Appellant be afforded an opportunity to defend his case based on the material that had exonerated him initially, which was originally accepted by the State.
The Apex Court held that the contention of the State to not disclose a document may be appropriate under normal circumstances wherein the Accused is entitled to all the documents relied upon by the prosecution after the Magistrate takes cognizance in terms of Section 207 of Code of Criminal Procedure. However, the instant case was easily distinguishable on its facts. Initiation of the FIR in the present case stems from the Writ proceedings before the High Court, wherein the State has opted to re-examine the issue in contradiction of their own affidavit and the preliminary report submitted earlier before the High Court stating that commission of cognizable offence had not been made out. It is in this background that the Apex Court held that the mandate of Section 207 of Code of Criminal Procedure cannot be read as a provision etched in stone to cause serious violation of the rights of the Appellant as well as to the principles of natural justice.
Prosecution by the State ought to be carried out in a manner consistent with the right to fair trial, as enshrined under Article 21 of our Constitution. Due to the fact that the High Court had ordered an enquiry and obtained a report without furnishing a copy to the Appellant and unceremoniously closed the writ petition, the 3 Bench Judge allowed the Appeal and directed the High Court to supply a copy of the report along with the relevant documents to the Appellant and further restored the Writ Petition for the High Court to dispose of on their own merit.
By - Lakshmi Raman