Monday, November 21, 2016

Protest Petitions in Criminal Trial

The Criminal Procedure Code 1973 [Cr.P.C.] was amended in 2009 to introduce certain statutory rights for victims of crime. This included the introduction of a Victim's Compensation Scheme [Section 357-A Cr.P.C.] and conferring a right upon victims to appeal against judgments [By way of inserting a Proviso to Section 372 Cr.P.C.]. During my first few months of practising, though, I found that the judiciary had played an equally important role towards increasing the role of the victim. For instance, although the Cr.P.C. does not strictly envisage hearing victims while considering grant of bail, many courts allowed them an opportunity to be heard at this stage. This post focuses on another such judicial creation - the Protest Petition.

What is a Protest Petition
Simply put, a Protest Petition is a representation made by the victim/informant to the court during or after completion of investigation by the police. Today it is most commonly filed after the police file a Closure Report or B-Report under Section 173 Cr.P.C. (what was earlier commonly understood as the Final Report) wherein the police concludes the allegations are not made out against an accused. The Protest Petition, then, is an opportunity granted to the victim/complainant to raise objections against these conclusions, before the Magistrate decides to apply her judicial mind to the Final Report.

The Protest Petition through History
It was extremely fascinating to trace the development of this concept through time. I daresay I have completed this task though, and am still trudging through the decisions. For instance, while the High Courts of Patna and Calcutta had extensively dealt with the legal niceties surrounding Protest Petitions before independence, the first reported judgment from Delhi does not come before 1990 in most databases! Unfortunately, I have not yet come across any discussion of how this was a unique method by judges to ensure some measure of ensuring victims-rights, at a time when such concepts were alien to the criminal process across most parts of the world.

Another interesting facet was how the High Courts seem to have considered Protest Petitions as any representations protesting against police investigations. The term predominantly used in Calcutta was Naraji, which loosely translates to dissatisfaction. Naturally this extended to petitions filed by both accused persons and complainants/victims, although the latter far outnumber the former. Further, the Protest Petition by an accused seems to have only been filed during the investigation, whereas those by complainants were filed during as well as after conclusion of investigations.

Lastly, the consideration of Protest Petitions and acceptance of Final Reports by the police also raised important issues concerning the nature of this exercise: whether it was an executive or a judicial function. If the task was considered an executive function, this meant there was limited scope for review of such an order in revision proceedings. This is purely of historical interest now, since the present Cr.P.C. makes a clear separation between the executive and judicial functions of the magistracy. It was not always so, and there were several reports before 1973 which considered how this separation could take place (the 37th Law Commission Report discusses this to some extent).

Filing a Protest Petition
Many interesting procedural issues arose by allowing this intervention by complainants. I list some below:
  • If the Magistrate has a Closure Report and a Protest Petition, can the latter be considered only if the Final Report is accepted?
  • Does the Protest Petition have to be a 'Complaint' to take cognizance? 
  • Must the Complainant be examined on oath under Section 200 Cr.P.C. after taking cognizance on a Protest Petition?
  • If the Magistrate takes cognizance on a Protest Petition when there is a Closure Report, would the case be tried as a complaint case or one based on a police report?
  • If the Magistrate has a Protest Petition and Closure Report, can the Magistrate send the police back for further investigation to file a fresh report?
  • If the Magistrate is rejecting the Closure Report and accepting the Protest Petition, should the case be transferred before another Magistrate for trial?
Some of these questions can be answered with a degree of certainty. On the first question, there is no prohibition on considering the Protest Petition before accepting the Closure Report. The magistrate may well look at the protest petition beforehand and take cognizance on the Closure Report itself. The magistrate is also empowered to direct a further investigation under Section 156(3) Cr.P.C. after receiving a protest petition. Similarly, it is settled that if the magistrate does decide to take cognizance on the Protest Petition, it must satisfy ingredients of a 'Complaint' under Section 2(d) of the Cr.P.C., and then the complainant must be examined on oath before issuing summons.  

For the others, there remains some doubt though, and this comes with a cost since these questions have important consequences. For example, a complaint case allows for arguing discharge after cross-examining witnesses and such cases can be dismissed for non-appearance of the complainant. This is not so when cases are proceeded on the police report. Furthermore, if the magistrate rejects the findings in the Closure Report and takes cognizance, or direct further investigation only to take cognizance thereafter, would it not affect the appearance of justice if the trial proceeded before the same court? After all, it is not entirely unreasonable to suppose that the court has already arrived at some conclusions about the case in such situations despite the limited application of mind required at this initial stage of the criminal process. The latter is becoming increasingly pressing, though, with it becoming routine for certain courts to re-send closure reports for further investigation to gather more material and play the role of a prosecutor.

Conclusion
The Protest Petition is a crucial piece of judicial innovation much ahead of the times in giving victims a say in the criminal process. Its existence, and development, across the country over the last century directly questions notions that the role of the victim was negligible in India. Its presence today raises important questions regarding the separation between the spheres of investigation and trial. It would be insightful to compare this with other colonial jurisdictions to discern exactly how unique this practice was to India. Today, this predominantly area-specific judicial practice has attained national status. It would certainly help if the federal legislature codified the Protest Petition and made it a part of the Cr.P.C. to address the lingering ambiguities that have arisen during this transformative process. 

3 comments:

  1. Great information ! One more aspect that becomes important to examine is the right to legal aid of the informant. In all cases where the police files a closure report, a notice is sent to the informant, with a view to give him an opportunity to appear, but few of these informants have the legal means/assistance to be filing protest petitions. Most informants/victims come to the court and give a statement that they have nothing against the police and are satisfied with the investigation. A victim ought to be given free legal aid at that stage, for him to understand his rights better. Though, CrPC does not envisage such a requirement on the magistrate, the victim/informant may be entitled to legal aid under the Legal Services Authority, 1987.

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    1. That's an excellent point. By possibly incorporating a reference to the 1987 statute in the Cr.P.C. itself, maybe some issues could be resolved?

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  2. That's right. The victim's counsel can assist the prosecutor; let's first ensure that victim HAS a counsel.

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