[This is a long post discussing both the CBI and the ED Bail Orders]
Readers may recall that at the end of August 2019, the Delhi High Court dismissed the petitions of P. Chidambaram for anticipatory bail in connection with what has become popularly known as the "INX Media Scam", which was the subject matter of investigations being conducted by the Central Bureau of Investigation ["CBI"] as well as the Enforcement Directorate ["ED"]. Mr. Chidambaram was arrested by the CBI almost immediately after this order, and so he moved the Supreme Court for anticipatory bail in the ED case. The petition in the ED case was also dismissed on 05.09.2019, since the Supreme Court agreed that necessary custodial interrogation would suffer if bail were granted.
Mr. Chidambaram's bail pleas in the CBI case made their way to the Supreme Court, and around two months after his initial arrest, the Supreme Court held in his favour, directing that he be released on bail in the CBI Case [Crl. Appeal No. 1603/2019, decided on 22.10.2019]. However this did not lead to his release since, around a week before the order, the ED had sought, and was granted, permission to arrest Mr. Chidambaram [Note that the ED had not made any efforts to secure his custody, let alone arrest Mr. Chidambaram, till 11.10.2019]. This triggered another set of bail petitions, which resulted in the order passed today in P. Chidambaram v. Enforcement Directorate granting him bail in the ED case [Crl. Appeal 1831 of 2019, decided on 04.12.2019].
The slew of orders passed by courts in Mr. Chidambaram's petitions has made distinct contributions to the law in this field — some desirable, others not so. Having discussed previous orders at the stage of anticipatory bail, this post discusses the two orders of October [Crl. A. 1603/2019] and December [Crl. A. 1831/2019]. I first discuss their contributions to the law, and then make some observations on the proceedings at large to highlight the seriousness of certain issues that are given criminally negligible attention by courts while considering the grant or refusal of bail.
P. Chidambaram v. CBI — Focusing on the Particulars
The posture of proceedings before the Supreme Court in this case was slightly peculiar: The High Court had held that there was no basis to apprehend that Mr. Chidambaram would tamper with evidence, or that he was a "flight risk". Nevertheless, it rejected his bail plea, considering the probability that he could influence other witnesses. Both parties filed cross-appeals in the Supreme Court where the accused sought bail, and the CBI sought to challenge the High Court's observations that Mr. Chidambaram was not a flight risk.
In a pleasantly short order, the Supreme Court held that bail ought to be granted. Besides helpfully culling out five relevant principles for considering bail pleas for future courts [(i) Gravity, (ii) Threat of Tampering with Evidence, (iii) Threat of Absconding, (iv) Status / Personal factors of the Accused, and (v) Public / State interest (See Paragraph 22)], the Court also repeatedly insisted that the specifics of each case be looked at and, in doing so, chided the State for asking the Court to treat the "flight risk of economic offenders [as] a national phenomenon".
How is a Court to consider the above factors, then? The Supreme Court did not approve of a full-blown analysis of the merits of the prosecution. Instead, it advocated an approach that focused on the identified factors primarily, along with a minimal consideration of the prosecution's case itself. Judicial analysis of these bail factors had to be rigorous — something apparent in how the CBI submissions were rejected for being vague, generic, and totally unsupported by the actual facts of the case [Paragraphs 27 ("Flight Risk"); Paragraphs 28—31 ("Tampering")]. Thus, as the Court points out:
Mere averments that the appellant approached the witnesses and the assertion that the appellant would further pressurize the witnesses, without any material basis cannot be the reason to deny regular bail to the appellant; more so, when the appellant has been in custody for nearly two months, co-operated with the investigating agency and the charge sheet is also filed. [Paragraph 31. Emphasis supplied]
I suspect that the Paragraph extracted above might end up being cited in subsequent bail petitions and judicial orders. But the real takeaway is the judicial approach on display here: The Court's refusal to be cowed by rhetoric and hyperbole while remaining keenly focused on an appreciation of the facts as they are relevant to the issue of bail. This is something that merits emulation, especially in cases where public glare is the harshest.
P. Chidambaram v. ED — Of Triple Tripods and Gravity of Offences
The Delhi High Court had denied bail in the ED case primarily due to the seriousness of allegations while holding that there was no threat of Mr. Chidambaram either absconding or tampering with evidence. Its order had attracted a stream of press coverage for reportedly copying portions of the State's submissions as part of its "findings", as well as discussing the facts of an entirely unrelated case as being related to the case against Mr. Chidambaram [Paragraph 11].
The Court relied upon its own earlier orders from October in Crl. Appeal No. 1603/2019 to outline the factors relevant for deciding a bail petition. But, curiously, the Court completely failed to mention that this was a case where, besides Section 439 of the Criminal Procedure Code 1973 ["Cr.P.C."], the provisions of Section 45 of the Prevention of Money Laundering Act 2002 ["PMLA"] would also have to be considered.
That provision itself had been struck down as unconstitutional in 2017. But since then, there was an amendment to the PMLA in 2018, which sought to cure the defects in the provision and render it constitutional. In fact, the legal effect of the changes to Section 45 through the 2018 amendments has been the subject of judicial scrutiny before some High Courts but it is an issue that hasn't yet been considered by the Supreme Court. Given this position, I find it extremely peculiar that the judgment completely fails to mention Section 45, and wonder if this fact may form a valid ground for review.
After the Supreme Court simply assumed that the legal considerations for bail in a PMLA case would be the same as in any other case [Paragraphs 15—17], it also impliedly rejected the submission made by Dr. Singhvi, appearing for the appellant, that the gravity of an offence needn't be a factor for consideration at the stage of bail and the only relevant factor was the "Triple Test" of evasion, tampering, and influencing witnesses (or "Triple Tripod" as the order notes at one place) [Paragraphs 15—17, 21].
Having said so, the Apex Court disapproved of the manner in which the High Court had gone about considering the merits of the prosecution case for assessing the gravity of allegations. This criticism was of a threefold, and partly contradictory, nature: (i) the extensive nature of scrutiny, (ii) the apparently uncritical assessment of facts (by copying the State's submissions), and (iii) relying upon the material supplied in sealed covers to arrive at a conclusion [Paragraphs 23—24]. Considering the ubiquity of sealed covers in the practice of law today, it was refreshing to read the Court refraining from opening the sealed cover [Paragraph 24] and observing that:
In that circumstance though it is held that it would be open for the Court to peruse the documents, it would be against the concept of fair trial if in every case the prosecution presents documents in sealed cover and the findings on the same are recorded as if the offence is committed and the same is treated as having a bearing for denial or grant of bail. [Paragraph 23. Emphasis supplied]
The Supreme Court did not agree with the finding that the seriousness of allegations was a sufficient reason to deny Mr. Chidambaram bail. In arriving at this conclusion it also strongly rejected the State's claim that his custody was required to confront him with witnesses, recalling that the ED had had several months to do so since the rejection of Anticipatory Bail on 05.09.2019, and that Mr. Chidambaram's cooperation with the investigation could be secured through appropriate bail conditions. One of these, which is bound to attract some controversy in the coming days, is a condition prohibiting him from speaking publicly in "connection with this case" [which may or may not extend to the CBI case].
The Chidambaram Cases, Arrests, and Custody — Unexplored Issues
The legal aspects of the Chidambaram cases have thus been explored. But it would be naive to think that these cases were all about the law — far from it. This is why it becomes important to consider some of the other issues that remain unexplored in these orders. Foremost among these issues is the need for greater scrutiny while evaluating the State's perceived need for a person's custody and alleged non-cooperation by an accused person with the investigation.
While discussing the 05.09.2019 order rejecting Mr. Chidambaram's plea for anticipatory bail in the ED case, this Blog had criticised the "hands-off" approach of the Supreme Court in engaging with the arguments about the lack of cooperation by the accused. The order reflected a complete refusal to test the claims by ED of the need for Mr. Chidambaram's custodial interrogation, uncritically accepting the submission about there being a "qualitative" difference in the kind of questioning that might be conducted with a person on bail. The bail order of 04.12.2019 does narrate the failure of the ED in conducting any significant interrogation or confrontation with witnesses, but it sorely missed an opportunity to revisit this critical issue which crops up in almost every other bail hearing.
In fact, the Chidambaram cases confirm how agencies often seek custody without ever having any intent to conduct thorough questioning, and repeatedly seek further extensions of custody by promising that a very important phase of questioning is on the horizon. Thus, while the Supreme Court did well to call out the ED on its bluff of future questioning in the 04.12.2019 order, it still remains possible for state agencies to merely claim that an accused person is not cooperating with the probe without ever having to substantiate this allegation to a reasonable degree of scrutiny. Surely this cannot be the position of law in a constitutional republic that claims to be very protective of a person's right to life and personal liberty.
The unrelated, and more thorny issue, is the role played by the "gravity" of an offence. This was one of the main grounds for critiquing the Delhi High Court's initial orders of August 2019. Again, it is unfortunate that the Supreme Court did not make some attempts at clarifying the legal position through the multiple orders it passed in the Chidambaram cases.
To recap, the problems with considering the gravity of the offence as a factor for deciding bail petitions are twofold. The first problem is a lack of nuance while considering the issue: Simply looking at the maximum possible sentence and the best case of the police is too uncritical an approach, especially in offences where criminality is inferred from neutral facts [fraud, corruption] and is not apparent as in cases of bodily harm [murder, dacoity].
But there is also a second, related problem with treating gravity as a factor for deciding bail petitions. Considering the fact that a case is at its infancy when a bail petition is being heard, courts have consistently held that there mustn't be an in-depth examination of the merits, which is something reserved for the trial. At the same time, there must be some examination of the merits to determine the gravity of allegations, since a court cannot blindly accept every averment that the police makes. Drawing this fine line between what is too little and what is too much scrutiny of the facts is the problem, and we saw how the High Court's approach was criticised in both the CBI and ED cases as having gone too far in its analysis. But this criticism was hardly scientific, and the arbitrariness of this line-drawing is apparent upon a random sampling of bail orders and on reading the submissions made before courts.
Considering that the Supreme Court specifically rejected Dr. Singhvi's submissions on the factors for deciding bail, and unequivocally held that "gravity" must be seen as a factor for determining the bail petition [Paragraph 21 of the 04.12.2019 order], it is singularly unfortunate that while it criticised the Delhi High Court's analysis, it did so without offering any guidance for courts which undertake this difficult line-drawing exercise on a daily basis. Greater certainty in this realm would not only help reduce the arbitrariness that plagues bail hearings at present, but would also arguably make them proceed faster, with everyone having a clearer picture of what is relevant and what isn't.