Judicial Updates -
Supreme Court - Before issuing summons to accused, magistrate can dismiss defamation complaint by applying exceptions under section 499 of the Indian penal code, 1860.
In the case of M/s Iveco Magirus Brandschutztechnik Gmbh v. Nirmal Kishore Bhartiya & Anr. [Criminal Appeal No. 1959 of 2012], the Airports Authority of India (“AAI”) issued a global tender for the provision of Airfield Crash Fire Tenders to airports. The Appellant, a Germany-based producer of fire safety equipment submitted an application for the same, however, the tender was given to Rosenbauer International after the Appellant’s bid was turned down. The Appellant then issued four letters in the nature of complaints to different authorities including the Minister of Civil Aviation, Government of India, the Chairman of AAI, the Chief Vigilance Officer, AAI, and the Central Vigilance Commissioner, Government of India, inter alia, complaining of favouritism and irregularities in the tender process, wherein it was alleged that the complainant, through illegal and wrongful methods, persuaded AAI to award the tender to Rosenbauer. Subsequently, the Indian affiliate of Rosenbauer International filed a complaint alleging criminal defamation and its abetment under sections 107, 499, and 500 read with section 34 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860 (“IPC”) before the Trial Court. The Trial Court summoned the Appellant after determining the existence of a prima facie case against it. The Appellant moved an application under Section 482 Criminal Procedure Code, 1973 (“CrPC”) against the summons order, but the High Court rejected the same. Aggrieved by the decision of the High Court, the Appellant filed an appeal before the Supreme Court.
There were two issues before the Supreme Court –
Whether, while considering a private complaint alleging defamation, the Magistrate before summoning the accused must confine himself to the allegations forming part of the petition only or he may, applying his judicial mind to the exceptions to section 499, IPC, dismiss the complaint holding that the facts alleged do not make out a case of defamation?
Is it open to the High Courts to exercise its inherent power under section 482, Cr. PC to quash proceedings for defamation by setting aside the summoning order by extending the benefit of any of the Exceptions to section 499, IPC?
The Court in regard to issue (a) observed that the Magistrate must determine whether there is “sufficient ground for proceeding,” which is different from “sufficient ground for conviction,” based on the allegations in the complaint and other material (obtained through the process referred to in section 200 or 202). The latter will be decided during the trial, not at the moment the procedure is issued. The Apex Court noted that ordinarily it would be challenging to determine whether an exception under Section 499 is attracted at the time of issuing notice because it is unlikely that a defamation complaint will be written with specific allegations and that statements will be made under oath and evidence will be presented.
The Court further observed that “..issue of process under section 204 read with section 200, Cr. PC does not ipso facto stand vitiated for non-consideration of the Exceptions to section 499, IPC unless, of course, before the High Court it is convincingly demonstrated that even on the basis of the complaint and the materials that the Magistrate had before him and without there being anything more, the facts alleged do not prima facie make out the offence of defamation and that consequently, the proceedings need to be closed”.
Additionally, the Court stated that “…it is not the law that the Magistrate is in any manner precluded from considering if at all any of the Exceptions is attracted in a given case; the Magistrate is under no fetter from so considering, more so because being someone who is legally trained, it is expected that while issuing process he would have a clear idea of what constitutes defamation. If, in the unlikely event, the contents of the complaint and the supporting statements on oath as well as reports of investigation/inquiry reveal a complete defence under any of the Exceptions to section 499, IPC, the Magistrate, upon due application of judicial mind, would be justified to dismiss the complaint on such ground and it would not amount to an act in excess of jurisdiction if such dismissal has the support of reasons”.
The Apex Court in regard to issue (b) held that if the accused relies on documents that were not presented to the Magistrate, the High Courts are prohibited by Section 482 CrPC from expanding the scope of the investigation. Further it was made clear that this does not affect the High Courts' authority under section 482, CrPC, and that it would always be free to exercise its inherent authority to deliver genuine and substantial justice.
The Court stated that “…in a case where the offence of defamation is claimed by the accused to have not been committed based on any of the Exceptions and a prayer for quashing is made, law seems to be well settled that the High Courts can go no further and enlarge the scope of inquiry if the accused seeks to rely on materials which were not there before the Magistrate. This is based on the simple proposition that what the Magistrate could not do, the High Courts may not do,”.
Moreover, it was laid down that “...the High Courts on recording due satisfaction are empowered to interfere if on a reading of the complaint, the substance of statements on oath of the complainant and the witness, if any, and documentary evidence as produced, no offence is made out and that proceedings, if allowed to continue, would amount to an abuse of the legal process. This too, would be impermissible, if the justice of a given case does not overwhelmingly so demand.”
Finally, it was held that “…nothing prevents the Magistrate upon application of judicial mind to accord the benefit of such Exception to prevent a frivolous complaint from triggering an unnecessary trial. Since initiation of prosecution is a serious matter, we are minded to say that it would be the duty of the Magistrate to prevent false and frivolous complaints eating up precious judicial time. If the complaint warrants dismissal, the Magistrate is statutorily mandated to record his brief reasons. On the contrary, if from such materials a prima facie satisfaction is reached upon application of judicial mind of an “offence” having been committed and there being sufficient ground for proceeding, the Magistrate is under no other fetter from issuing process.”
Hence, the Supreme Court dismissed the Appeal.