Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Holding the Cards too Close to Your Chest

Very little intelligent discussion happens concerning the Official Secrets Act [OSA] in India. You could say this lack of discussion is by design, and means the law is doing its job. Perhaps it is. What it also does is perpetuate a culture of secrecy surrounding decision-making by officials. With an increasing intensity surrounding the freedom of information movement, there was a spurt in questions being raised in the Rajya Sabha (see hereherehere and here. I am certain it was discussed in the Lok Sabha as well) about the Official Secrets Act. The tenor of government's responses seemed consistently non-committal but implying that change is mooted. But this seems to have changed as momentum stilled (see here, and here). In the meanwhile, we had the Right to Information Act bringing its overriding clauses, and the 2nd Administrative Reforms Commission recommending a repeal of the statute altogether. Obviously, that didn't happen. This post takes up the argument that the criminalisation under the OSA is unconstitutional. 

The OSA is acknowledged to be a British legacy, dating back to 1923 (earlier variants existed as well). The statute's context belie the imposing title. The phrase "official secrets" does not find any definition or mention; the law primarily attends to cases of espionage by using broad definitions of the potentially sensitive information involved. Offences are not designed simply, stating that one who steals "official secrets" shall be punished. Offences (such as Section 3), require individuals to act "prejudicial to the interests" of India, and these acts must be the unauthorised acquisition or dissemination of "secret official code, or password, or any sketch, plan, model or other information" that is useful to the enemy and/or prejudicial to India's interests. Cases can only begin on a complaint by the authorised officer, and a sanction to prosecute the official must be granted before cognizance can be taken. 

The Issue of Knowledge
Two questions become important here, (i) how do persons know that a a code or sketch, plan model etc is potentially useful to the enemy or affects the security and interests of India and  (ii) does it matter whether they know or not? Dealing with the second issue first, all hints point to a position of law that disregards the need for an accused to have knowledge. I argue this on the basis of the two primary offences, Sections 3 and 5. Section 3 was mentioned above, and sub-section (2) therein supports my claims. It allows a conviction simply on the basis of the 'conduct or known character' of the accused and allows the court to dispense with a need to specifically prove that the person had some prejudicial purpose. Not only does this go against the basic tenets of treating character evidence (which has been blogged about earlier), but in a unique manner disregards both actus reus and mens rea requirements. Nifty.

Section 3 is prefaced by a mental element (the acts must be "with a purpose prejudicial to the safety or interests of the State", regardless of how it is rendered nugatory. Section 5 contains no such preface and so makes the knowledge issue more potent. It has three sub-sections, out of which only Section 5(2) uses the words "knowing or have reasonable ground to believe". Does that mean the other offences do not require any knowledge element? A Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court approves of this logic (see Ranjit Udeshi v. State of Maharashtra, AIR 1964 SC 881). It is nobody's case that the accused is unconsciously in possession of the documents - possession is conscious. But does the accused need to know that the documents were, to wit, "likely to assist, directly or indirectly, an enemy"? 

The statute clearly suggests that knowledge is not essential, nor is lack of knowledge a defence. Interestingly, the U.K. repealed its old statute (contemporary to ours) to insert lack of knowledge as a defence (UK Official Secrets Act, 1989). Thus it is a defence if the person did not know, or did not have reasonable cause to believe, that the material concerned was such that its disclosure was prohibited. This is not unconstitutional strictly speaking, but goes against a the basics of criminal theory that one could argue are part of substantive due process.

Classification and Clearer Unconstitutionality
I'm not a fan of the Article 21 is omnipotent school, and so try and make my case on clearer grounds by answering the first question I posed. The question was how do persons know whether documents are state secrets when the document hasn't got TOP SECRET on its face. The answer exists, and is in the form of a Ministry of Home Affairs Manual on Departmental Security Instructions. After the RTI a request was made for disclosure of this Manual. This was denied by the Ministry, and contested right up to the Central Information Commission. The Commission upheld that decision to deny disclosure, reasoning that making the classification public would prejudice the safety of the state. 

Since nobody but the State knows whether something was secret, and holding secrets is an offence, what stops the State from deciding something is secret after it goes public? Take an example. A journalist, X, gets his hands on a non-public pending legislative bill potentially legalising marijuana and makes it public. The Police arrest X, suspecting him of having secret information, and ask the Government whether such non-public legislative bills form information of the kinds barred by the OSA. Here is the problem. (A) Since I cannot know if the information I have is potentially secret, any determination made now is ex-post-facto and illegal. (B) Since nobody knows what information is secret, nothing stops the State from deciding how to treat papers ex-post-facto, rendering any offences which follow unconstitutional under Article 20. 

What's the Point?
India, along with South Africa, remains the only prominent erstwhile colony to have not reworked its secrecy law in the wake of the freedom of information movement. The point, therefore, is that such a blanket secrecy law curbs journalistic expression and is fundamentally anti-democratic. The arbitrary noose of the OSA may be brought upon any unwitting reporter, making her think thrice about writing that story on Naxal rebels in the heartlands. This is an old, overused point, but it seems silly that we've retained a British law that Britain comprehensively repealed. They even make the classification public. If nothing else, Section 5 must go. 

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Judicial Appreciation at Different Stages of Trial

Criminal trials require the prosecution to prove its case beyond reasonable doubt (well, most trials at least). This is a satisfaction that the judge arrives at. But this is not the only determination that a judge has to make during the trial, that has material bearings on the life of the trial itself. The same judge is required to do this at three other instances - (i) while taking cognizance, (ii) while summoning the accused, and (iii) upon framing charge. The text of the Cr.P.C. indicates different levels of satisfaction are required to proceed further at each stage, as the stakes keep increasing. But since cases are decided by human judges and not robots, subjectivity creeps in, and so does confusion. Here, I argue a lot of confusion has crept in regarding the satisfaction required at each stage. A lot of noise has developed due to judicial dictum, obscuring what the text might have meant. Besides making the law confusing, it has also contributed to increased delays.  

Understanding the Three Stages

1. Cognizance
Cognizance is the first time a Magistrate is presented with the facts, in the form of either a Police Report [Section 190(1)(b)], or a Complaint disclosing the commission of an offence [Section 190(1)(a)], or due to facts in the knowledge of the Magistrate herself [Section 190(1)(c)]. Must a Court take cognizance upon any of these occurring? Section 190 using 'may' and not 'shall' suggests not. The Supreme Court agrees [for instance, Abhinandan Jha v. Dinesh Mishra, (1967) 3 SCR 668]. In suggesting there exists discretion, the Supreme Court did little to suggest how such discretion should be exercised though. Here, no support could be had from the text. Unlike other stages, Section 190 contained no test explaining the satisfaction required for taking cognizance and moving ahead. Nevertheless, the Court went ahead and created a right for aggrieved complainants to be heard at this stage as well [Bhagwant Singh v. Commissioner of Police, AIR 1985 SC 1285],

Could it be though, that the Code was not intend for Magistrates to evaluate merits at this stage in any way, but only consider whether mandatory requirements were fulfilled? By mandatory requirements, I refer to the various other provisions between Section 190 and 200, that restrict the taking of cognizance. For instance, suppose a complaint under Section 497 IPC [Adultery] is filed before a Magistrate. Section 198 Cr.P.C. does not allow everyone to file complaints for this offence. So maybe, all that the Magistrate is required to do was determine whether the complaint was filed by a proper person, and then proceed? The 'may' in Section 190 Cr.P.C. continues to make sense, and we don't have any subjective discretion creeping in. The interpretation adopted by the Supreme Court opened the doors for challenges to orders on cognizance before appellate courts, causing delays at the very inception of litigation.

2. Summoning
Once the Magistrate takes cognizance of offences, the next step is summoning the proposed accused for trial. Here the Cr.P.C. clearly requires some application of mind, evident from Section 203 which allows dismissal of complaints, and the language of Section 204 which pertains to summoning. It says that there must be 'sufficient ground for proceeding' . Is this determined through argument? And, is there any objective marker to determine whether there exist such sufficient grounds? Although we haven't reached trial, the importance of this stage must not be lost. This decides whether an accused must enter appearance. Where criminal litigation was pursued to mount pressure, this may well be the most important step for litigants. Lets keep answering these questions in abeyance for now, as it is important to first briefly explain what is framing charge

3. Framing Charge
Charges are what determine a trial - this is what the accused must plead to. The Cr.P.C. envisages different trial procedures for different kinds of offences - the more serious offences get a more rigorous trial, so to speak. Framing charge is therefore not found across all trials - Sessions and Warrant cases only, as Summons cases have what is called "Framing of Notice". The Code allows the court to conclude that no charge should be framed, allowing that an accused be discharged. These provisions on discharge vary in style across the different kinds of trial, as seen on a comparison of Sections 227, 239 and 245 of the Code.

Conflating Summoning with Framing Charge

Do we Need to Argue?
Now, lets run back to those questions on summoning. Would the sufficient grounds for proceeding be determined through argument? Section 204, which talks about issue of process, comes right after provisions explaining procedure of complaints before Magistrates. A Magistrate upon reading a complaint examines the complainant on oath. He can also order a police inquiry to determine "whether or not there is sufficient ground for proceeding". If this is a Police Report, there is no such requirement as we already had a lengthy investigation. Summoning is also followed by charge in most trials, and the possibility of discharge for the accused. The Cr.P.C. requires the court to examine the record, and hear both sides, before deciding whether charges should be framed. Both these requirements are conspicuously absent at the time of summoning. To kill the suspense, the answer is that arguments on summoning are always heard when cognizance of offences is taken on a complaint case. Summons are always issued when cognizance is taken on a police report.

Amazingly, earlier the court heard both sides at this stage as well, making differences between the stages quite limited. If arguments were being advanced, naturally the complainant would rely upon the record of the case. The accused couldn't, as documents are supplied post summoning, but would secure some material to have an effective hearing. All of this obviously compounded the problem of delays. Thankfully, today an accused does not have a right of hearing at this stage [Adalat Prasad v. Rooplal Jindal, (2004) 7 SCC 338]. The reason was increasing delays and too many re-adjudications. Delays persist in another form, as the order remains open to scrutiny. Revision proceedings are possible despite the seemingly interim nature of the order [owing to another decision, Madhu Limaye v. State of Maharashtra, (1977) 4 SCC 551]. If the trial court dismissed the complaint and didn't issue summons, any challenge to that order must make the accused a party [Manharibhai Mujlibhai Kakadia v. Shaileshbhai Mohanbhai Patel, (2012) 10 SCC 517].

Levels of Satisfaction
Where summoning requires 'sufficient grounds', the discharge provisions are differently worded for the different trials. Section 227 says that the judge may discharge if there is "not sufficient ground for proceeding". Section 239 discharges where the Magistrate considers the "charge against the accused to be groundless", and Section 245 adopts this where no evidence is recorded. How do we differentiate summoning from charge? Moreover, how do we distinguish between all these tests for charge itself?

If we imagine summoning to be a stage where there is no argument, then the difference is perceptible. The former is a basic inquiry to determine whether or not one should proceed. The supporting material is not looked at, only the basic allegations in the complaint are considered. Later we have consideration of the record, and both sides being heard, making for a deeper inquiry. This also makes little of an interesting dilemma that arises when we place 204 with 227 - the court first finds sufficient grounds to proceed, only to later conclude there is not sufficient ground! But in our argumentative setup, differences become difficult to identify. When the Court hears arguments on summoning, it implicitly allows reliance on the record. Today, the materials are made exhibits during pre-summoning and considered to the extent of their admissibility and reliability. This problem is very real, and I think is visible in the three judge bench decision of Sunil Bharti Mittal [(2015) 4 SCC 609. See the observations in Pepsi Foods v. Special Judicial Magistrate, 1998 Cri LJ 1 as well]. The reasons behind this are obvious - summoning means the accused must appear in Court, and sometimes the stakes are just too high to make sure that doesn't happen,*

So what about framing charge? This is the first stage at which the accused gets to argue, and at that level there is undoubtedly a difference between this and every earlier stage. But now we have a different problem. The Complainant is, potentially, addressing the Court for the third time (and at least the second time). Although the accused is arguing, the rules of the game are already set and she cannot introduce any material now for the court's consideration [another decision, Debendra Nath Padhi v. State of Orissa, (2005) 1 SCC 568]. The accused might have some material that wipes out the allegations against him, but will not be able to rely upon it before the trial court, or even a court in revision. Only the High Court can make a difference, exercising its extraordinary jurisdiction under Section 482, Cr.P.C.

As for the levels of satisfaction required, a bare reading of the Code may lead one to think that getting discharge gets more difficult depending on how serious the offence is. But the Supreme Court disagreed and said that the different words mean nothing. All that framing charge requires is establishing a prima facie case [R.S. Nayak v. A.R. Antulay, AIR 1986 SC 2045]. What is a prima facie case? Again the Court does not help much while inserting standards for the existing text. A multiplicity of decisions express the same thing differently only to confuse further, and introduce other standards not faithful to the text - requiring grave suspicion, for instance [Niranjan Singh v. Jitendra Bhimraj, AIR 1990 SC 1962]. The text enables a court to consider the record but how far can that analysis go without it becoming a mini-trial? Hearings at this stage, and judgments, often end up relying upon decisions rendered on merits in appeals to advance an argument on fact. Is it proper, though, to rely upon such decisions for conclusions on facts, while considering the life of a case pre-trial? The routine way in which courts accept this suggests that fine lines are long gone.

Codification, and here I draw from the formation of the Indian Evidence Act, was an exercise where the legislature intended to divorce the law from the effects of judicial law-making. The text was to guide decision-making. A reading of the text as contained in the Cr.P.C. offers clear guidance. That guidance, or sound, appears to have been lost through the noise generated over decades of verbose dicta. Cutting through the noise to the sound is perhaps inconceivable today, but the exercise is eye-opening. I admit that the arguments in this post have an underlying fallacy - it carries an implicit faith in the judiciary. Perhaps the extra intervention by the parties remains necessary because judges are overburdened and require additional assistance. The problems created by the noise run deeper though, and I argue this has resulted in draining any clarity that might have existed in the exercise of judicial discretion through these stages of taking cognizance, summoning the accused, and framing charge.

* An interesting thought. Given that the decision in Adalat Prasad took away an accused's right to be heard at the stage of summoning, is it legal to rely upon decisions before Adalat Prasad to explain the degree of  satisfaction to determine whether sufficient grounds exist for framing charge? Would there not be a difference in the level to which a court requires to be satisfied when the accused is not there to present his case, in whatever manner and form? This would make reliance on Pepsi Foods illegal.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Curbing the Right to Legal Aid - Snippet

The Constitution of India guarantees free legal aid under Article 39-A. It expresses a clear idea - legal assistance is valuable and necessary to all. People in prison - both undertrials and convicts - are also allowed legal assistance by means of what is called a "legal interview". These interviews are secured through Rules commonly found in the Jail Manual for the respective state. In Delhi, the Delhi Prisons (Prisoners' Welfare Fund, Appeals, Petitions, Interviews and Communication) Rules, 1988 detail how legal interviews are secured for different classes of prisoners. Rules 42-43 are specifically relevant:

42. Every interview between an unconvicted person and his legal adviser shall take place within sight, but out of hearing, of a jail official. A similar concession may be allowed by the Superintendent in the case of an interview with any near relative of the unconvicted person. 

43. When any person desires an interview with an unconvicted criminal prisoner in the capacity of the prisoner's advocate he shall apply in writing, giving his name and address and stating to what branch of the legal profession he belongs and he must satisfy the Superintendent he is the bona-fide legal adviser of the prisoner with whom he seeks an interview and that he has legitimate business with him.

As you can discern, there is no limit to how many interviews one could have in a week, or the time for conducting these interviews. So naturally, I was a bit surprised when I came across Standing Order No. 53 passed by Delhi Prisons on 27.02.2013. The order restricts the right of prisoners to a legal interview to once a week, ordinarily. An additional interview can only be allowed in exceptional circumstances, with prior permission from Law Officer, PHQ. Given the absence of any requirement for reasons on what are exceptional circumstances, this discretion is rarely exercised without arbitrariness. Thus, undertrials have been denied rights to meet their lawyers for more than once a week. 

This was challenged before the Delhi High Court in 2014, and the Delhi Government also filed a response. If newspaper reports are to be believed, one reason behind this curtailment was that prisoners had not requested more than one interview per week ordinarily, reflecting they were satisfied. This is hardly commendable logic, and I am unaware whether the High Court has decided the petition yet. What I do know is that Standing Order No. 53 is still in force. It amounts to a clear contradiction of India's unequivocal commitment to free legal aid, and recognition that a prisoner desperately requires legal assistance. I am unaware of the practices followed in other states across the country. It would be interesting, and disturbing, to see whether there is a larger trend existing. Comments would thus be highly desirable!