High Courts must maintain hands-off approach and refrain from dismissing FIR about “corruption” cases, especially during the stage of investigation: Supreme Court

In a significant decision, the Supreme Court stated that it is preferable for the High Courts to uphold corruption case FIRs during the investigation stage, even if it is believed that the case was filed by the new government against officials of the outgoing administration. A Bench of Justices S Ravindra Bhat and Dipankar Datta observed that if the accused are allowed to go free solely on the grounds that the current regime acted maliciously to “settle scores,” the criminal justice system will suffer. Quashing FIR solely on the grounds that it was registered by the new government to exact vengeance on the individual is therefore not recommended.

Mr. Uchit Sharma filed a complaint with the office of the Chief Minister of the State on October 11, 2019. It was alleged that Mr. Aman Singh, an Indian Revenue Service (IRS) officer and former Principal Secretary to the erstwhile Chief Minister of Chhattisgarh, and his wife Yasmin Singh, a former consultant to the Chhattisgarh Government who had worked on contract as the Director, Communication and Capacity Development Unit (CCDU), Department of Public Health Engineering, Govt. of Chhattisgarh and as Director, ICE & Capacity Building, Dept. of Panchayat & Rural Development, Govt. of Chhattisgarh and his family were involved in money laundering.The couple were in possession of assets which are disproportionate to their known sources of income.

The bench stated that it is preferable for the High Courts to take a “hands-off” approach because it is difficult to determine with certainty, at the time of reading a first information report, whether or not the public servant is in possession of property out of proportion to the sources of income that are known.  Everything would rely on what is finally uncovered once the investigation is over.

“Having regard to what we have observed above in paragraph 49 (supra) and to maintain probity in the system of governance as well as to ensure that societal pollutants are weeded out at the earliest, it would be eminently desirable if the High Courts maintain a hands-off approach and not quash a first information report pertaining to “corruption” cases, specially at the stage of investigation, even though certain elements of strong-arm tactics of the ruling dispensation might be discernible.

A preliminary enquiry was ordered as a result of the current Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel’s request that the Economic Offenses Wing investigate the accusation. Yasmin had previously filed a motion with the High Court challenging the departmental investigation.

The Supreme Court ordered the State to stop doing anything that might be detrimental to her on January 16, 2020. Aman then went to the High Court. An FIR was filed while the case was still ongoing against the couple. The FIR was dismissed by the High Court in January 2022. The Supreme Court received petitions contesting this ruling.

Senior Advocate Kapil Sibal argued on behalf of the State that the High Court had violated the law by invalidating the FIR and had thereby committed a serious legal error. Mr. Sibal asserted that the High Court exceeded its boundaries. He criticised the impugned judgement for failing to recognise the aforementioned fundamental concept.

Aman Singh in the current instance, according to Mr. Sibal, challenged the FIR a few days after it was filed on February 25, 2020, and obtained a High Court judgement directing that no coercive action be taken against him. Despite receiving a notice and possessing such an order, Aman Singh chose not to participate in the investigation. No order was issued to halt the probe. There was no immediate threat of being arrested, even if the investigation had proceeded.

He continued, If Aman Singh and Yasmin Singh do have papers and documents to adequately account for the pecuniary resources and property and that they do not possess assets out of proportion to their known sources of income, such papers and documents could have been produced before the Investigating Officer, enabling him to hold that there is no substance in the complaint filed by Uchit Sharma, and then to file an appropriate closure report with the relevant court to be considered.

The investigation procedure was halted because the Investigating Officer was unable to carry out the investigation in a meaningful or effective manner due to the High Court’s restraining orders. The court additionally noted that a preliminary investigation or probe is necessary in a complaint of the acquisition of disproportionate assets in order to protect the accused public servant’s interests as well as to accurately estimate the value of disproportionate assets if the complaint has substance.

The Court further stated that the public servant may not have been suspected of possessing financial resources or disproportionate assets while holding office under their employer. It might have been handled on their behalf by someone. The court emphasised that here is where an investigation is crucial.

“To weed out corrupt public servants, the Government has to engage sincere and dedicated personnel for collecting and collating the necessary material in this regard. If there be no interventions, the investigation that is likely to follow in terms of the Cr. P.C., could enable the investigating officer to collect and collate the entire evidence establishing the essential links between the public servant and the property or pecuniary resources in dispute.”

Failing to understand the justifications for quashing the FIR, the court noted that the High Court had disregarded the caution in State of Haryana v. Bhajan Lal, which stated that the ability to halt a criminal investigation should only be used in the rarest of cases. The court added that although there are still innocent public officials who are implicated in fabricated cases, it would be a small price to pay.

“We quite appreciate that there could be cases of innocent public servants being entangled in investigations arising out of motivated complaints and the consequent mental agony, emotional pain and social stigma that they would have to encounter in the process, but this small price has to be paid if there is to be a society governed by the rule of law.”

With these remarks, the Court overturned the High Court’s decision while extending the respondents’ earlier interim protection by three weeks.

“For the foregoing reasons, we have no option but to hold that there are no cogent grounds for quashing the FIR in the present case even on the ground of mala fide. Consequently, we set aside the impugned judgment and order and direct dismissal of the writ petitions. The appeals are, accordingly, allowed.Interim protection granted earlier shall continue for a period of three weeks, within which Aman Singh and Yasin Singh may pursue their remedies in accordance with law.”

However, the court made it clear that the observations expressed here are only for the purpose of dismissing these appeals. The following proceedings will be carried out strictly in accordance with the law.

Case Title: The State Of Chhattisgarh vs Aman Kumar Singh

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