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This article is written by Khyati Mehrotra who is pursuing a Certificate Course in Advanced Civil Litigation: Practice, Procedure and Drafting from Lawsikho.

Introduction

A legal wrong occurs when legal interests or rights, protected by the law are violated or infringed. This act of violation or infringement entails legal liability and legal sanctions on the wrongdoer. When a private right is breached affecting individual interest, a civil wrong occurs, however, when there is a violation of public interest, affecting the society as a whole, it is categorized as a crime. Law establishes an effective mechanism to address the grievances of both the victims of civil and criminal wrong. However, there are different and separate procedures to seek relief in civil and criminal disputes. A complainant has to choose an appropriate channel to seek remedy in accordance with the type of dispute i.e. civil or criminal. 

Many a times, the complainants opt to file a criminal complaint and set criminal proceedings in motion in a case which is civil in nature. This is a blatant misuse of criminal law machinery and utter abuse of process of law. The courts have been given the power to quash such criminal proceedings at the initial stage so that the accused should not suffer at the hands of law for such wrong which he has never committed.

The Courts however have to use this power sparingly and cautiously on a case to case basis. The scope of the inherent power of the court to quash criminal proceedings have been reflected in several judgements of the Supreme Court and High Courts. The Courts have also laid down the principles which govern the quashing of criminal proceedings at the threshold. 

Nature and scope of civil and criminal proceedings

The nature and scope of civil and criminal proceedings are different due to the difference in the nature of the rights involved. Civil and criminal proceedings vary in the following ways-

  1. In a civil matter, the case is initiated by the plaintiff i.e the aggrieved party, while in criminal matters, the parties are commonly the state and the wrongdoer. 
  2. In civil case, the remedy available to the aggrieved is payment of compensation or specific relief like forced performance of legal obligation. While in criminal matters, the wrongdoer has to face punishment as the overall purpose of initiating a criminal case is maintenance of peace and order. 
  3. In civil cases, a matter can be decided on the basis of probabilities, whereas the standard of proof in criminal cases is ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ as crimes are more serious and affect the society at large and not just an individual’s right.
  4. To initiate the proceedings in a civil matter, the plaintiff files a complaint to the respective court or tribunal and sets the machinery in motion, on the other hand, in criminal cases, the complaint is registered with the Police who investigates the crime or with Magistrate who can take cognizance of the complaint. And only after due investigation and examination, the trial begins. 

Well defined procedure has been laid down for civil and criminal complaints. For proper adjudication of disputes and dispensing justice, it is essential to follow appropriate procedure laid down for civil and criminal proceedings.

Initial criminal proceedings in civil matters

Despite laying down separate procedures, complainant tend to file a criminal complaint in a civil matter for expediting the civil recovery process. The person seeking relief in a civil dispute has this urge to recover the money at any cost and at the earliest. They try to achieve this by coloring the civil dispute as criminal and escalating the seriousness of the offence. This practice of giving civil dispute a cloak of criminal offence is a vexatious and oppressive litigation. This is used as a tactic to threaten the accused with barbarous repercussions (involved in a criminal case) and pressurize him to enter into a settlement with the complainant. 

This concern was highlighted in Indian Oil Corporation vs. NEPC India Ltd. & Others (“Indian Oil Case”) where the Supreme Court observed that there is a growing tendency in business circles to convert their civil disputes into criminal. This is mainly owing to the existing perception that civil law remedies take time and do not sufficiently protect the interests of the lenders. It is also believed that there is a possibility of imminent settlement if a person is threatened and pressurized by the initiation of criminal proceedings. The Supreme Court condemned this practice and recommended that this practice of misleading the courts and manipulating the nature of dispute should be forbidden by the Courts. Complaint should not be allowed to exploit the judicial proceedings for settling scores or unduly harassing the accused to get favorable results.

Power of courts to dismiss such complaints or quashing FIR

As mentioned above, civil and criminal proceedings have to be adjudicated by adopting separate yardsticks. Thus, the courts have inherent power to quash the criminal proceedings if those are initiated in the case of civil nature.

Power of Magistrate under Section 200 of Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973

When a criminal complaint is filed under Section 200 of Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973 (“CrPC”) a magistrate can take cognizance of the offence made out. The magistrate then has to examine the complainant and witnesses to ascertain whether a prima facie case is made out against the accused to issue process or not. Magistrate is entitled to dismiss the complaint under Section 203 CrPC after examination, if there is no ‘sufficient ground’ to proceed further. 

The Supreme Court in the case of Debendra Nath Battacharya v. The State of West Bengal and another, while examining the scope of Section 203 of CrPC explained what will constitute as sufficient ground. It held that if a bare perusal of complaint show that the essential ingredients of offence alleged are absent or that the dispute is a only in civil nature or that there are such patent absurdities in evidence produced that it would be a waste of time to proceed further, then these will constitute sufficient ground to dismiss the complaint under Section 203 of CrPC.

Therefore, if after examination, it is found that the criminal complaint is in civil nature, the magistrate shall dismiss it without issuing the process.

Power of the High Court under Section 482 of Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973

Section 482 of Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973 (“Section 482”) deals with the inherent powers of the High Court. The inherent jurisdiction of High court under Section 482 may be exercised to give effect to an order under the Code, to prevent abuse of process of Court or to otherwise secure ends of Justice.

In the landmark case of R.P Kapur v. State of Punjab, Supreme court while dealing with the inherent jurisdiction of High Court held that it is a well-established principle, that inherent jurisdiction of the High Court can be exercised to quash criminal proceedings in proper case either to prevent the abuse of the process of any court or otherwise to secure ends of justice. The High court would be reluctant to interfere with the criminal proceedings initiated at an interlocutory stage, however, there may be cases where quashing of proceedings is pertinent to stop abuse of process of court. 

Further, it has been well acknowledged in an array of cases settled over time that for settlement of a civil dispute, initiating criminal proceedings and filing criminal complaint complainant will amount to abuse of process of law and in such case the High court will be justified to quash the proceedings in exercise of its inherent power. Recently, this was also reiterated by the three- judge bench of the Supreme court in case of The Commissioner of Police & Ors. V. Devender Anand & Ors. 

It is important to note that the court while exercising its inherent power to quash a proceeding at interlocutory stage shall not indulge in the question of whether the evidence produced is reliable or not as this is the work of the Trial Court. The court has to merely take into consideration the contents of the complaint or FIR, to decide if the offence alleged is disclosed or not. Where the FIR or criminal complaint, taken at their face value and accepted in entirety, do not constitute the offence alleged, it would be legitimate for the High court to quash the proceedings as issuing the process of the criminal court against the accused in such case will be unjust.

Principles relating to exercise of jurisdiction under Section 482 to quash FIR/criminal complaints 

Time and again, the Apex Court has elucidated the principles for quashing the criminal proceedings while exercising inherent jurisdiction under Section 482. Referring to those judgement, Apex court reiterated in Indian Oil Case, some of the prominent principles which govern the quashing of criminal proceedings in cases which are civil in nature- 

  1. If the allegations in the complaint, taken at their face value and accepted in entirety, do not prima facie constitute any offence, the complaint can be quashed.
  2. If the criminal proceedings have been initiated with mala fides /malice for wreaking vengeance or to cause harm, or where the allegations are absurd and inherently improbable, the proceedings may be quashed as it is a clear abuse of process of court.
  3. The power to quash should be used sparingly and with abundant caution. The power to quash at the initial stage shall be used rarely and is not intended to scuttle justice at threshold.
  4. The complaint must lay down the necessary factual foundation for constituting an offence, it is not required to verbatim reproduce and explain the legal ingredients of the offence alleged in detail.
  5. The mere fact that the complaint relates to commercial transaction or breach of contract, for which a civil remedy is available or is being availed, is not a ground by itself to disqualify criminal proceedings. The test is whether the allegations in the complaint disclose a criminal offence or not.

Case laws illustrating such principles  

Content of complaint should disclose criminal offence 

The disputes related to commercial transaction and breach of contract are in civil nature unless the contents of the complaint disclose that it has a criminal element. With respect to Section 482, to determine whether dispute is civil in nature or criminal, the court has to only examine the complaint as whole without going into the merits of the case. The court should restrain itself from a detailed inquiry or a meticulous analysis of the material or an assessment of the reliability or genuineness of allegations while examining prayer for quashing of a complaint. 

In the case of Hriday Ranjan Prasad Verma & Ors. v. State of Bihar & Anr, Apex court held that mere breach of a contract cannot be a ground for criminal prosecution as fraudulent or dishonest intention has to be shown right at the beginning of transaction to culminate the offence of Cheating. ‘Intention’ is an essential ingredient which has to be established for proving the criminal offence.   

In a recent case, Sushil Sethi and another vs. The State of Arunachal Pradesh and others, charge sheet was filed against the appellants for the offences of Section 420 read with 120 B of Indian Penal Code, 1860. The main allegations were that the appellants provided sub-standard material not as per technical specifications. The Apex Court held that from a bare reading of charge sheet/FIR, there are no allegations that there was fraudulent or dishonest intention of the appellants to cheat the other party from the very beginning of the transaction. Hence, the offence of cheating is not made out and the proceeding for the offence under Section 420 read with section 120 B of IPC is liable to be quashed. 

Criminal complaint filed maliciously to misguide 

If a complainant is filing a criminal complaint, knowing that the remedy for the same is available in civil proceedings, the action of the complainant will be considered to be malafide and unsustainable which will result in abuse of process if law.

The Supreme Court in G. Sagar Suri v. State of U.P, expounded that it is to be taken care that disputes essentially of civil nature have not been given a cloak of criminal offence. The Apex Court reminded that the criminal proceedings are not a shortcut of other remedies available in law. A criminal case is a serious matter for the accused and hence, the criminal courts have to exercise a great deal of caution while dealing with such cases.  

In another case, Anand Kumar Mohatta & Anr. v. State (Govt. of NCT of Delhi), Supreme court dealt with a case where the dispute was of civil nature but a criminal case was filed. The apex court observed that the case was for recovery of money, however, the complainant directly filed the criminal complaint without taking any other steps of recovering the amount. This clearly points towards malafide intentions of the complainant. 

In a landmark judgement of State of Haryana vs. Bhajan Lal, the Apex court construed that where a criminal proceedings are filed with malicious intentions, or with an ulterior motive for wreaking vengeance on the accused or with a view to take revenge or hurt the accused due to personal grudge, such proceedings shall be quashed and set aside.

Power of the High Court to quash proceedings to be used sparingly in rare cases

The Supreme Court on many occasions reminded the Courts about the judicious and careful use of power under Section 482.

As emphasized by the Apex Court in  Medchl Chemical & Pharma (P) Ltd. v. Biological E. Ltd. & Ors., the power of the High Court under section 482 to quash the complaint is an exception rather than a rule and the case for quashing at the initial stage must have to be treated as rarest of rare so as not to scuttle the prosecution. The jurisdiction as such is rather limited and restricted and its undue expansion is neither practicable nor warranted. 

In another case of State of Andhra Pradesh v. Golconda Linga Swamy and Ors, Supreme Court held that the FIR/criminal complaint can not be quashed on the mere ground that it was filed with malafide intentions. FIR can be interfered with at the initial stage only if there is no offence disclosed from the FIR or the complaint is frivolous, oppressive or vexatious.

Supreme Court in State of Kerala and Ors. v. O.C. Kuttan, once again accentuated the vigilant use of powers under Section 482 and observed that it is well-settled that First Information Report is only an intimation to move the machinery and to investigate into a cognizable offence. Hence, utmost care should be taken while deciding the quashing of investigation itself as at that stage it is not possible for the court to weigh the materials and then come to a conclusion.

A dispute in which remedy is available in civil law, may also include criminal offence

The test applicable for determining quashing of complaint, is whether the allegations made in complaint are disclosing any criminal offence or not. If the crime is apparent from the complaint i.e prima facie offence is made out, the proceedings shall not be quashed merely because there is a civil remedy also available

 In Lalmuni Devi (Smt.) v. State of Bihar & Ors, Apex Court reiterated that it is well settled that facts may give rise to a civil claim and a criminal offence. Merely because a civil claim is maintainable does not mean that a criminal complaint cannot be maintained. 

It is pertinent to note that even if a civil case has been filed and pending, it is not a bar to file a criminal complaint in the same dispute if a criminal offence is also made out from the same set of facts.

In Kamaladevi Agarwal vs State Of West Bengal And Ors, Supreme Court categorically held that criminal cases have to be proceeded independently according to the procedure laid down under Code of Criminal Procedure and the pendency of civil proceedings in a different court which may be higher in status and authority, can not be a ground to quash criminal proceedings.  

Though initiating a criminal proceeding in a purely civil dispute is abuse of the process of law and such malicious proceeding shall be quashed, the Court must use its power to quash proceedings at the threshold cautiously by implying the above-mentioned principles.

Provisions discouraging wrongful criminal complaints 

Courts shall take stringent actions and utilize their power to curb the frivolous prosecutions and check the abuse of process of law. 

Under Section 250 of Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973, a Magistrate has the power to charge compensation from the complainant if the magistrate is satisfied that there is no reasonable ground for making the accusations. If the complainant fails to pay the compensation, the Magistrate can even order the complainant to undergo simple imprisonment for a period not exceeding thirty days. The Magistrate can use power under Section 250 of CrPC to deter the malicious complainant.

A complainant initiating false proceedings can also be punished under Section 211 read with Section 182 of Indian Penal Code, 1860 (“IPC”). Section 211 of IPC enables the courts to punish a person with fine, imprisonment or both, who falsely initiates criminal proceedings, knowing that there is no justifiable ground. Similarly, under section 182, one can be punished for giving false information to the public servant and using the lawful power of a public servant for causing injury or annoyance to the accused.  Court has to take cognizance of these offences only if it has received a complaint in writing on behalf of that court or any other court to which it is subordinate. These provisions ensure that the person raising false claims of a criminal offence, in a purely civil dispute does not go unpunished. 

Person who has been wrongly accused with a criminal offence, may also file a case of malicious prosecution in the law of torts. Complainant is liable to pay damages if he has instituted the suit against the accused without any reasonable or probable clause and with malicious intention, and it has caused damage to the accused’s reputation or safety.

Courts have this responsibility to not only quash the wrongful criminal proceedings but also punish the complainants initiating such proceedings so that abuse of process of law is effectively dissuaded.

Conclusion

Instead of different resources provided to litigants for seeking relief in civil and criminal matters, they do not hesitate to exploit the criminal law machinery in civil matters and abuse the process of law. Courts must utilize their power to quash the criminal proceedings at the threshold itself, if the complaint does not disclose any criminal offence and the dispute is merely civil in nature. Such vexatious and frivolous complaints should be discarded and litigants bringing such complaints in the court of law must face harsh penalties so that it discourages people to misguide the court and exploit the legal machinery to fulfil their unjustified demands. 

Justice Dhingra in case of Gurdev Singh Kaler vs. State of NCT of Delhi CRL rightly opined that the court’s machinery should not be used as an instrument of oppression or needless harassment but the courts shall judiciously exercise their discretion and take all the relevant facts and circumstances in consideration before quashing the proceedings under Section 482 lest this section may become an instrument in hands of accused to bring a sudden death to prosecution.  


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