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This article is written by Ojasvi Gupta, a student of Law School, BHU. It attempts to answer the question – can strangers interfere in the investigation of a criminal case.

Introduction

Criminal law is the system of law that is concerned with all aspects of criminal acts and criminals. It defines the offenses, procedure of apprehension and trial of accused, and determination of penalties. Examining the extent of interference of strangers requires a thorough understanding of the criminal procedural laws and the judicial developments that have occurred along with. Under criminal law, any person other than the State, victim, and the accused is considered a third party. The term victim here is the same as defined in Section 2 of the Criminal Procedure Code, 1973, and includes the legal heir and legal guardian of the victim. 

Locus Standi

Locus standi refers to the legal capacity of a person to take a stand before the court. The existence of locus standi is necessary for any legal process of approaching the court. This includes filing a suit or an action before the court. It is the right of a party or a person to prove before the court its stand due to its connection to and harm from the law or action challenged to support that party’s participation in the case.

When the court finds that the person lacks ‘standi’ to appear in the case, the court may reject their argument without going into the facts of the case. In recent times, this concept has been diluted since the introduction of Public Interest Litigation but no substantial effect has been observed in the realm of the criminal law system.

The investigation process of a criminal case

In India, the criminal procedure is broadly categorized into three different stages, namely pre-trial, trial, and post-trial stages. Each stage requires different steps to be fulfilled which are provided in detail below.  

The pre-trial procedure begins the moment an offense has been committed and the same is reported to the police. What action the police take depends on the fact whether the offense committed was cognizable or not. The police can initiate the investigation and even arrest the accused if the offense alleged is cognizable but in the case of a non-cognizable offense, the permission of the Magistrate is required before starting the investigation. The accused is given a chance to apply for bail. This stage comes to an end when the charges are framed after the prima-facie investigation and the Court directs the case to be posted for trial.

The trial of a case includes an examination of witnesses, evidence on behalf of the prosecution as well as the defense, statement of the accused, final arguments, and finally the judgment of the Court. Not all criminal cases necessarily go through the post-trial stage, only those wherein the convicted have filed for an appeal or a revision application. The proceedings come to an end with the judgment of the appellate court. 

Whether a third party can interfere in the investigation of a criminal proceeding?

Traditionally, no stranger has the right to interfere in the investigation of a criminal case as allowing this may create chaos and confusion by the sheer number of associations that a criminal act may bring forward. Discussion over the legality of intervention by a third party in the undergoing investigation of a criminal case has changed over time. The following judgments show how:

In this case, the Apex Court had held that the State will take all necessary steps on behalf of the aggrieved party in criminal matters. By making the State the custodian of the social interests of the community at large, the Court ruled out the locus standi of any private party that tries to intervene. 

  • In D.Gopalan v. Shanthi Alias Vennira Adai, (1989), the Court pondered whether the complainant has the right to interfere once the proceeding has been taken over by the State. It was held that a complainant is equally entitled to oppose the withdrawal of the prosecution process which commenced at his/her instance. 
  • On the other hand, the narrow concept of cause of action and the aggrieved person is becoming obsolete in some jurisdictions. The Supreme Court attempted to increase the scope of the concept of locus standi in A. R. Antulay v. Ramdas Sriniwas Nayak (1988). The judgment stated that the objective of the penal statutes and the principles they are based on is to punish the offender for the wellbeing of society. Keeping in mind this objective, the right to initiate criminal proceedings cannot be restricted by applying the strait-jacket formula of locus standi.
  • In the late ‘90s, when the use of Public Interest Litigation was on the rise, State of Kerala v. R. Balakrishna Pillai, (1995), stated PIL to be an alien concept in the criminal justice system. Though the third party intervention during the investigation process of the criminal case was not allowed, PIL brought into the scenario instances where third parties can file revision criminal petitions against judicial order. 
  • After a decade, the Court reinstated the previous stand on third-party intervention in Rajubhai Dhamirbhai Baria v. State of Gujarat (2012).  It iterated the settled position of third parties having no locus standi for intervention in the criminal trial. The Code of Criminal Procedure also makes it clear that strangers have no right to intervene during the investigation or at the appellate stage of a criminal trial. A person not associated with the offense has no right to appear before the court in which the concerning criminal proceeding is being held.
  • The judgment given in Subramanian Swamy v. Raju (2014) stands on the same principle but recognizes the limited rights of third parties in certain exceptional situations. 

The main reason behind third parties having no locus standi in criminal proceedings is that there would be a rampant increase in frivolous and vexatious litigation with no end and it might also affect negatively the rights of the accused. Moreover, if private parties are allowed to take the role of prosecution instead of the State, the chances of malicious prosecution may increase significantly. 

The recent trend regarding third-party intervention in criminal proceedings

A shift has been observed in the third parties’ right to intervene in a criminal trial in recent times. Before understanding the judicial developments which have allowed strangers to take a stand before the Court in a criminal proceeding, the provisions which allow this sort of interference must be interpreted. 

According to Section 24 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973, the prosecution, appeal, or any other criminal proceeding on the behalf of the State is carried out by the Public Prosecutor appointed for the case. Section 301 states that if in any such case any private person instructs a pleader to prosecute any person in any court, the pleader so instructed shall act under the directions of the Public Prosecutor. The pleader may then submit written arguments with the due permission of the court. Further, Section 302 empowers the Magistrate to hear the case to permit the prosecution to be conducted by any person other than a police officer below the rank of inspector.

Any person conducting the prosecution may do so personally or through their pleader. The above-mentioned provisions have been interpreted by the courts in judgments, to be discussed, in such a way so as to increase the scope of intervention by third parties in criminal cases. Cases, where public-spirited pleaders are allowed to intervene in the prosecution before the court, may include instances when the victim is not in a position to look after his/her own interests or when a situation has arisen where the state machinery looks reluctant to prosecute.

People who support the right of third parties to intervene in criminal matters argue that one of the fundamental principles of the criminal justice system is that wrong done to anyone is a wrong done to society. So, any person on behalf of society must have a right to seek justice. Justice is outraged when a guilty person is allowed to get away unpunished. 

In Arunachalam v. P.S.R. Sadhanantham, (1979), the Supreme Court had allowed an appeal by a private party against the judgment of acquittal. In All India Democratic Women’s Association. v. State,(1997), the High Court of Madras limited the scope of the right of third parties in Section 301(2) to intervene but only to assist the prosecution. In Delhi Domestic Working Women’s Forum v. Union of India, (1994), another interpretation of the intervention was made in the sexual assaults case. It also allowed an intervener to assist the victim of sexual assault. The assistance could be related to but not limited to explaining to the victim the nature of proceedings, assisting the victim in the police station and the court.  

In J.K. International v. State (Govt. of NCT of Delhi), (2001), the Supreme Court widened the scope of Section 302. The judgment stated that the third party’s role is not negated by the Cr.P.C. The Magistrate is empowered to permit a private person who presents the arguments for prosecuting the accused. 

Recently a petition filed by the Prisoners Right Forum for investigating the death of a prisoner in judicial custody was dismissed by the Madras High Court for having no locus standi either as a victim or as an aggrieved person. 

These are some of the cases which have allowed strangers to interfere in the investigation of a criminal proceeding but mostly to the extent of assistance. Thus, objectively a stranger can interfere in a criminal case but only with due permission obtained from the judge presiding over the case. It is not a right provided to all but a legal provision to ensure that public-spiritedness contributes to providing better access to justice.

Foreign context

In most countries, jurists are of the opinion that it is very unusual for the courts to consider interventions in criminal cases and their appeals. Comparatively, third-party interventions are relatively uncommon in the common law than in civil law. The Supreme Court of Canada has laid down the rule by stating that the right to intervene in criminal proceedings should be granted sparingly. Delivering justice is an exercise of jurisprudence and requires consideration of numerous aspects. For this reason, the Canadian criminal law system considers a third-party intervention in special circumstances. 

In recent years, United Kingdom courts have begun allowing third-party interventions that mostly consist of public bodies, NGOs, etc. Unlike in constitutional matters, interventions by a private party are only allowed when it has been established that the decision of the Court hearing the case will have much greater implications in the society or a section of society. 

An example where the London Court recognized the interveners’ contribution was the 2013 case of Hughes Cousins-Chang. Chang was arrested and held overnight with no access to reach his parents or an adult. Despite being a 17 year old, he was treated as an adult. The Howard League on Penal Reform and the Coram Children’s Legal Centre were granted permission to intervene to make legal arguments on the rights of young people in the criminal justice system. 

Conclusion

Sections 301 and 302 of CrPC talk about how third parties may intervene in the criminal proceedings, but under different circumstances. The former allows intervention by a private person only under the charge of the Public Prosecutor, i.e. the State. In such cases, it is the Public Prosecutor, under whose overall conduct and supervision the prosecution is carried on, including the arguments or facts brought forward by the third party. 

Whereas Section 302 is concerned with a situation where any person not being a police officer below the rank of Inspector, without coming under the umbrella of a Public Prosecutor, can prosecute a case after obtaining the permission of the court. Though it is only a rarest of the rare situation as the State considers itself well-equipped and motivated to meet the ends of justice. Concludingly, it could be said that two levels of intervention by strangers are envisaged under CrPC, not as a legal right but rather as a safeguard embedded to ensure access to justice. A stranger may seek the permission of the Court to intervene in a criminal proceeding but ultimately it is decided at the discretion of the court.  

References


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