Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Limiting Private Prosecutions in Criminal Law?

Standard criminal procedure lessons in India devote some time on how the Indian criminal process can be set in motion through various ways. Section 190 - on taking cognizance of offences by courts - indicates that a Court may take such cognizance on a police report, and also on a private complaint. It places 'private complaint' [190(1)(a) Cr.P.C.] above 'police report' [190(1)(b) Cr.P.C.], interestingly enough. If a case is begun on a complaint, then the procedure under Sections 200-203 of the Cr.P.C. gets activated, before we arrive at the issue of deciding whether or not persons ought to be summoned for trial [Section 204 Cr.P.C.]. Have you ever thought that, perhaps, this makes it too easy to initiate criminal proceedings and takes away some force out of them? 

Labelling anything is meant to convey a meaning to society, guiding it on how to consider a certain phenomenon or behaviour. So, calling something a crime has historically meant to convey to society that such acts or omissions are wrong. They not only merit censure, and also attract sanctions in the form of fines, or imprisonment. This was one of those fundamental criminal law lectures, where criminal law was portrayed as a affecting society, whereas civil suits were of a more private nature. But how do we know whether something really does affect society, and how is society's will reflecting itself? While the former has never been satisfactorily explained, one method of achieving the latter was to make a public authority responsible for initiating prosecutions. The European Court of Human Rights recognised this as one of the defining features of a 'criminal' proceeding [Benham v United Kingdom, (1996) ECHR 22], and we see Prosecutors being tasked with this responsibility across jurisdiction. The merits of this are obvious; two significant ones are (i) prosecutorial guidelines ensure that only a certain degree of seriousness gets fixed with the criminal label, and (ii) there is greater uniformity in arriving at these decisions. 

In India, private prosecutions are an extremely common route adopted in criminal proceedings. These are not restricted to only the less serious, non-cognizable, variety of offences but can also form the basis of serious prosecutions for offences such as forgery, that are punishable with life imprisonment. In my limited experience, I have seen these provisions being flouted as often as they are genuinely harnessed by litigants. Since there are no few costs to be incurred, it is a common strategy to file complaint cases in order to exert pressure when parties have a set of on-going disputes. The ease with which complaint cases can be filed means that this strategy is adopted with remarkable frequency. Not only does this worsen the judicial backlog and wastes public money (often cases end up getting settled outside of court), I argue that it weakens the symbolic value that the criminal law has. This is a larger problem that private prosecution entails even if it is not mala fide. Allowing parties to invoke criminal sanctions to resolve inter-se disputes reduces the seriousness that the label of criminality attracts. It becomes trivial, reducing it to just another card that the players have up their sleeves. If you don't believe me, try speaking to ten entrepreneurs running a small to medium sized business. I can bet you that at least one of them has been involved in a Negotiable Instruments Act case (cheque bouncing), or has seen a case of Cheating [Section 420 IPC] or Criminal Breach of Trust [Sections 406, 409 IPC]. This is definitely a slippery slope, I admit. Cases where a larger societal interest may be made out will almost always have a very individualistic element with particular parties being wronged by the particular acts or omissions. I must also admit here that my argument has decidedly more appeal in a commercial context - where parties are seen as having parallel remedies in civil proceedings (so a cheating case may well see a suit for recovery of monies). But, this is exactly what supports a more selective process, that helps maintain a balance and prosecute only those disputes that have some larger societal interest.

Should private prosecutions be culled in such a commercial/business context, then? As much as I would like to see that happen, I know it is impossible to realise that idea in the context of Indian criminal law. There are two primary reasons for this - the police, and the prosecutorial system. The police are notorious for failing to register cases and pursue investigations. Investigations, on average, end up taking over a year to complete. In that time it is possible to invoke the jurisdiction of the Court through a complaint and guide a case to the point of summoning potential accused persons. Most litigants, and courts, will admit that the police are often approached in such cases for the pressure that a police investigation brings with it, rather than some investigatorial nous. But a far bigger problem is the prosecutorial setup in India, or lack thereof, despite the introduction in 2005 of a 'Directorate of Prosecutions' by Section 25-A Cr.P.C. As a matter of practice, prosecutors appear seldom involved in the decision that brings a case to Court after a police investigation, while they are statutorily empowered to withdraw cases [Section 321 Cr.P.C.]. That is in respect of cases run by the police. The situation is different for complaint cases, where there is no effective mechanism in place that allows a litigant or court to involve the Directorate of Prosecutions to decide at the outset whether cases should be prosecuted. Again, statutory mechanisms allow for a serious case to be co-opted [Section 225 Cr.P.C.], but there is nothing that allows the prosecution branch to suggest, for instance, that perhaps valuable judicial time should be spent in proceeding to trial in a case which ultimately does not display a need to invoke criminal sanctions. In England and Wales, for instance, a right of private prosecution exists but a private prosecution may be later co-opted or controlled by the Director of Public Prosecutions [Prosecution of Offences Act, 1985]. 

So we find ourselves in a peculiar situation where the solution to these problems of ineffective police and prosecutorial systems is itself coming with the added costs of inflated dockets and reduced value of the criminal law. In times like these, the criminal law certainly seems like a lost cause.

[This post was updated on 22.02.2017 at 02:15 AM]


  1. A lost cause? That is a powerful statement.
    Probably an an amendment in the Court Fee Act wherein ad valorem Court Fee should be paid in Private Complaints under Section 200 is a way to curb non-serious/ frivolous litigations.

    1. That may help, surely, considering currently you just need a Two Rupee stamp to file a complaint :)