This article is written by Gautam Badlani, who is a student at Chanakya National Law University, Patna. It explains the stifling nature of prosecution and provides a comprehensive analysis of its legality. The article discusses relevant provisions and case laws relating to stifling prosecution.
Table of Contents
In criminal cases, it often happens that the accused tries to convince the victim to drop the charges and withdraw the complaint. In many cases, monetary and other incentives are also offered to the victim to withdraw the complaint. This practice is known as stifling prosecution.
Stifling prosecution is considered detrimental to the justice delivery system because it facilitates the trade out of felonies. It is against social welfare to let a person escape the justice system by coercing or incentivizing the victim.
Modes of stifling prosecution
Stifling prosecution means persuading the victim not to prosecute or continue an existing prosecution against the accused. Prosecution can be stifled in two primary ways: agreements and threats.
Agreements for stifling prosecution
Agreements where one party agrees to pay some consideration to the other party in exchange for the latter promising to forgo criminal charges against the former are known as agreements for stifling prosecution. Stifling prosecution agreements subvert the ordinary course of justice. They bring an unfair end to prosecution and thus defeat the administration of justice.
For example, if A enters into an agreement with B stating that A will sell his house to B if B does not press criminal charges against A, then such an agreement will amount to stifling prosecution.
Threatening the victims and witnesses to not pursue criminal prosecution is another method of stifling prosecution. In Waryam Singh v. Sadhu Ram (1972), the police officers threatened the witnesses with the object of stifling the prosecution. Subsequently, the Punjab and Haryana High Court found the police officers guilty under the Contempt of Court Act, 1952. The police officers had pleaded that they believed that the witnesses were untruthful. However, the Court pointed out that even if it was a case where the police officers believed the witnesses to be untruthful, they had no business threatening the witnesses, and it was for the court to determine the veracity of the witnesses’ testimony. Subsequently, an appeal against the decision of the High Court was also dismissed by the Supreme Court.
Legality of stifling prosecution
Stifling prosecution is not legally permitted. Agreements for stifling prosecution are considered illegal under Indian law. Such an agreement subverts the very administration of justice. However, the parties may enter into a compromise in the case of a compoundable offence, and therefore compoundable offences are an exception to the doctrine of stifling prosecution.
Stifling prosecution agreements are regarded as illegal because they take the administration of justice out of the hands of the judicial system and put it in the hands of private individuals. The right to protection against criminal offences cannot be waived for monetary consideration.
However, mere use of strong words to recover an existing claim will not amount to stifling prosecution. In the case of Flower v. Saddler [(1882) 10 Q. B. D. 572], the defendant owed some outstanding debt to the creditors (plaintiff). The creditors used strong language and threatened to initiate criminal proceedings against the defendant if he failed to pay the dues. The issue that arose before the Queen’s Bench was whether such a threat amounted to stifling prosecution. The creditors were impliedly offering not to prosecute the defendant if he paid the outstanding dues. The Queen’s Bench held that creditors can use strong language to recover the dues. Even if the creditors chose not to prosecute the defendant after receiving the dues, it would not amount to stifling prosecution.
Another aspect of stifling prosecution is that if an agreement is entered into between the accused and victim whereby the accused agrees to pay certain consideration to the victim but the victim makes no reciprocal promise of withdrawing prosecution, then such an agreement would not be invalid on the ground of stifling prosecution. If the accused agrees to pay some monetary consideration to the victim in the hope that the victim might withhold the prosecution in good faith, then the doctrine of stifling prosecution will not strike such an agreement. The law does not control the hopes and expectations of the compensating party. To constitute stifling prosecution, an express promise to withhold prosecution is mandatory.
One of the essentials of a valid contract is lawful consideration and object. Section 23 of the Indian Contract Act, 1872 defines the circumstances under which a consideration or object will be considered unlawful. As per Section 23, if the court regards the consideration or object of the contract as being against public policy, then it would be unlawful. Thus, agreements for stifling prosecution are void.
Illustration (h) of Section 23 is an example of stifling prosecution. The illustration states that if there are two parties, A and B, and A agrees to withdraw a complaint of robbery against B in exchange for B restoring the value of stolen goods, then the contract stipulating such an arrangement would be unlawful. The object of such a contract is unlawful.
As a matter of public policy, it is desirable that an offender be punished for the crimes he has committed. Entering into agreements that provide for the suppression of criminal charges in exchange for monetary or other benefits is legally prohibited. Such a practice is against the public policy of India.
Relevant case laws
Suresh Ganpati v. State of Maharashtra (2017)
Facts of the case
In this case, the applicants were found guilty of the charges framed under the Electricity Act, 2003, and were sentenced to three years of rigorous imprisonment. The applicants thereafter filed a compounding application and prayed the High Court to allow the compounding of the offence subject to payment of the monetary liability.
Issue involved in the case
The issue before the court was whether the applicants could be acquitted of the offences on the basis of the compromise reached by the parties.
Decision of the Court
The Bombay High Court held that compromise between the parties can be a ground for acquittal only with respect to compoundable offences and not in relation to non-compoundable offences. If the victim tries to compound a non-compoundable offence, then it will attract the doctrine of stifling prosecution.
Ouseph Poulo v. Catholic Union Bank Limited (1964)
In Ouseph Poulo v. Catholic Union Bank Limited (1964), the Supreme Court held that if an agreement is made between two parties stating that a certain consideration will be paid by the accused to the complainant in exchange for a promise that the complainant will not prosecute or discontinue the existing prosecution against the accused, then such an agreement will be against public policy.
Union Carbide Corporation v. Union of India (1991)
Facts of the case
The Supreme Court dealt with the doctrine of stifling prosecution in the case of Union Carbide Corporation v. Union of India (1991). This case related to a gas tragedy which took place in Bhopal in 1984 due to the leak of lethal gas from a storage tank belonging to Union Carbide Corporation. As a result of the tragedy, several claims were brought against the corporation. In an attempt to settle the claims, the Union Carbide Corporation offered to pay US$470 million to the Union of India. The petitioners argued that the sum was paid so that the Union of India would withdraw the existing prosecution and undertake to abstain from initiating criminal charges in the future.
Issue involved in the case
The issue before the court was whether the settlement offer attracted the doctrine of stifling prosecution.
Decision of the Court
The Supreme Court held that the Union of India had not coerced the Union Carbide Corporation to enter into the agreement and offer the money. Thus, the agreement did not attract the doctrine of stifling prosecution.
The Court further added that if one party sets into motion the criminal justice system on the pretext that a non-compoundable offence has been committed by the other party and then uses the prosecution as a coercive measure to compel the other party to enter into an agreement with him, then such an attempt would be hit by the doctrine of stifling of prosecution. Such an agreement is opposed to public policy and is therefore invalid under the Indian jurisprudence.
The Court further clarified that where the dropping of criminal charges is the motive but not the consideration of the agreement, the agreement would not be invalidated by the doctrine of stifling of prosecution. The dropping of criminal charges must be the consideration of the agreement to attract stifling prosecution principles.
Dwijendra Nath Mullick v. Gopiram Govindaram (1925)
Facts of the case
In Dwijendra Nath Mullick v. Gopiram Govindaram (1925), the defendant was charged with criminal breach of trust. The defendant had encashed a cheque for the plaintiff firm and had later approached the police station with the pretext that he had lost the encashed money. The police had not believed the story of the defendant and had arrested him. The plaintiff firm had accused the defendant of criminal breach of trust.
Thereafter, the defendant paid a certain amount to the plaintiff firm and entered into a mortgage with the plaintiff in the hope of getting the prosecution withdrawn. The plaintiff firm then moved a petition before the Deputy Commissioner for the withdrawal of the complaint. The complaint was subsequently withdrawn.
However, when the plaintiff firm tried to enforce the mortgage executed by the defendant, the defendant pleaded that since the mortgage was entered with the purpose of stifling prosecution, it was not enforceable. The agreement between the parties had no valid consideration.
Issues involved in the case
The issue before the High Court was whether the agreement between the parties amounted to a stifling prosecution agreement.
Decision of the Court
However, the Calcutta High Court held that the mortgage was not struck by Section 23 of the Indian Contract Act. In this case, an outstanding debt was owed by the defendant to the plaintiff, and the doctrine of stifling prosecution does not apply to cases of outstanding debt. At any rate, the criminal prosecution was initiated by the police officers and not the plaintiff. Moreover, the plaintiff had only moved an application before the Commissioner, and it was the Commissioner who decided to withdraw prosecution. Thus, the agreement did not concern the stifling of prosecution.
Stifling prosecution is permissible in matters where the concerned offence is compoundable in nature. A compoundable offence is one where the parties are free to enter into a compromise. Examples of compoundable offences are charting, assault, and wrongful confinement.
However, there are certain offences for which the parties do not have the liberty to enter into a compromise. In case of non-compoundable offences, the victim cannot forego the charges by entering into a compromise with the accused. Examples of non-compoundable offence are murder, rape, etc.
Stifling prosecution is prohibited in cases where the offence is a public offence. However, where a party is entitled to claim damages under a civil remedy, stifling prosecution may be allowed.
If a person enters into an agreement for stifling prosecution, then such an agreement is deemed void in law. Such an agreement is not enforceable, and the offender would not be able to escape his liability by relying on such an agreement. Such agreements are against public policy and thus not enforceable.
Stifling prosecution is an immoral and unethical practice. Once the charges against a person are proven in a court of law, such a person should be punished for his crimes. He should not be able to escape criminal liability by entering into an agreement and incentivizing the victim. A crime cannot be used to make monetary gains. Felonies cannot be the subject of trade in any civilised society.
The purpose of criminal law is not reformation and not mere restoration. Thus, if the offender tries to escape criminal liability by paying some monetary consideration to the victim, then it would defeat the very purpose of criminal liability. This would lead to the failure of the administration of justice as the element of deterrence in criminal liability would be blurred
Frequently Asked Question (FAQs)
Which agreements are considered to be opposed to public policy?
Agreements relating to stifling prosecution, monopoly creation, and champerty (where one party assists another in litigation and claims a part of the damages as consideration) are considered to be opposed to the public policy.
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