Del HC | “Ss. 69 and 132 of CGST Act prima facie valid; Power to arrest and prosecute is prima facie ancillary to power to levy and collect GST”: Read HC’s detailed analysis

Delhi High Court: The Division Bench of Manmohan and Sanjeev Narula, JJ., upheld the validity of Sections 132 and 69 of the Central Goods and Services Tax Act, 2017, and refused any interim relief to the petitioner.

Petitioners submitted that Sections 69 and 132 of the Central Goods and Services Tax Act, 2017 are unconstitutional as being provisions of criminal nature, they could have been enacted under Article 246A of the Constitution of India, 1950.

Further, the petitioners emphasized that the power to arrest and prosecute are not ancillary and/or incidental to the power to levy and collect goods and services tax.

Adding to the above submissions, it was further stated that since the power to levy Goods and Services Tax is provided under Article 246A, power in relation thereto could not be traced to Article 246 or any of entries in 7th Schedule.

In the alternative, they submitted that Entry 93 of List 1 confers jurisdiction upon the Parliament to make criminal laws only with respect to matters in List I and CGST. Therefore, according to them, Sections 69 and 132 are beyond the legislative competence of the Parliament.

In the past, many cases occurred wherein an assessee had been arrested at the initial stage of the investigation but the department had subsequently failed to establish its case in adjudication proceedings and in the process, the assessee suffered an irreparable loss on account of the arrest.

In the present cases, no Show Cause Notice had been issued to the Petitioners either under Section 73 or Section 74 of the CGST Act by the Respondents for any unpaid tax, short paid tax, or erroneous refunds or where input tax credit had been wrongly availed or utilized.

Court’s Reasoning

  • There is always a presumption in favour of the constitutionality of an enactment or any part thereof and the burden to show that there has been a clear transgression of constitutional principles is upon the person who impugns such an enactment. Further, Laws are not to be declared unconstitutional on the fanciful theory that power would be exercised in an unrealistic fashion or in a vacuum or on the ground that there is a remote possibility of abuse of power.

Bench while analyzing several aspects of the matter stated that whenever constitutionality of a provision is challenged on the ground that it infringes a fundamental right, the direct and inevitable effect/consequence of the legislation has to be taken into account.

Court referred to the decision of Supreme Court in Namit Sharma v. Union of India, (2013) 1 SCC 745.

In the decision of the Court in Maganlal Chhanganlal (P) Ltd. v. Municipal Corporation of Great Bombay, (1974) 2 SCC 402, it was held that :

“Administrative officers, no less than the courts, do not function in a vacuum. It would be extremely unreal to hold that an administrative officer would in taking proceedings for eviction of unauthorised occupants of Government property or Municipal property resort to the procedure prescribed by the two Acts in one case and to the ordinary civil court in the other. The provisions of these two Acts cannot be struck down on the fanciful theory that power would be exercised in such an unrealistic fashion. In considering whether the officers would be discriminating between one set of persons and another, one has got to take into account normal human behaviour and not behaviour which is abnormal. It is not every fancied possibility of discrimination but the real risk of discrimination that we must take into account. This is not one of those cases where discrimination is writ large on the face of the statute. Discrimination may be possible but is very improbable.”

  • Goods and Service Tax is a Unique Tax, inasmuch as the power as well as field of legislation are to be found in a Single Article, i.e. Article 246-A. Scope of Article 246-A is significantly wide as it grants the power to make all laws ‘with respect to’ Goods and Service Tax.

Unless the Constitution itself expressly prohibits legislation on the subject either absolutely or conditionally, the power of a Legislature to enact legislation within its legislative competence is plenary.

Further, Court added that there is also no conflict between the operation of Article 246A and Article 246 as a non-obstante clause has been added to Article 246A to clarify that both Parliament and the State Legislatures have simultaneous powers in relation to Goods and Services Tax.

  • This Court is of the Prima facie opinion that the ‘Pith and Substance’ of the CGST Act is on a topic, upon which the parliament has power to legislate as the power to arrest and prosecute are ancillary and/or incidental to the power to levy collect goods and service tax.

When a law is challenged on the ground of being ultra vires to the powers of the legislature, the true character of the legislation as a whole has to be ascertained.

Bench opined that when a law dealing with a subject in one list is also touching on a subject in another list, what has to be ascertained. If on examination of the statute, it is found that the legislation is in substance on a matter assigned to the legislature enacting that statute, then it must be held valid, in its entirety even though it may trench upon matters beyond its competence. Incidental encroachment is not prohibited.

In light of the discussion of the above point, Court prima facie opined that the pith and substance of the CGST Act is on a topic, upon which the Parliament has power to legislate as the power to arrest and prosecute are ancillary and/or incidental to the power to levy and collect GST. 

  • Even if it is assumed that power to make offence in relation to evasion of GST is not to be found under Article 246A, then the same can be traced to Entry I of List III. The term ‘Criminal Law’ used in the aforesaid entry is significantly wide and includes all criminal laws except the exclusions.

Supreme Court’s decision in Kartar Singh v. State of Punjab, (1994) 3 SCC 569, has emphasized that the language used in the aforesaid entry is couched in very wide terms and the scope of the term ‘criminal law’ has been enlarged to include any matter that could be criminal in nature.

In view of the above, High Court prima facie opined that even if Sections 69 and 132 of the Act could not have been enacted in pursuance to power under Article 246A, they could have been enacted under Entry 1 of List III, as laying down of a crime and providing for its punishment is ‘criminal law’.

  • This Court, at the interim stage, cannot ignore the view taken by the Gujarat High Court with regard to application of Chapter XII CrPC to the CGST Act.

In Gujarat High Court’s decision in Vimal Yashwantgiri Goswami v. State of Gujarat, R/Special Civil Application No. 13679 of 2019, it was held as under:

♦ When any person is arrested by the authorised officer, in exercise of his powers under Section 69 of the CGST Act, the authorised officer effecting the arrest is not obliged in law to comply with the provisions of Sections 154 to 157 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973. The authorised officer, after arresting such person, has to inform that person of the grounds for such arrest, and the person arrested will have to be taken to a Magistrate without unnecessary delay, if the offences are cognizable and non-bailable.

However, the provisions of Sections 154 to 157 of the Code will have no application at that point of time. Otherwise, Section 69 (3) provides for granting bail as the provision does not confer upon the GST officers, the powers of the officer in charge of a police station in respect of the investigation and report. Instead of defining the power to grant bail in detail, saying as to what they should do or what they should not do, the short and expedient way of referring to the powers of another officer when placed in somewhat similar circumstances, has been adopted. By its language, the sub-section (3) does not equate the officers of the GST with an officer in charge of a police station, nor does it make him one by implication. It only, therefore, means that he has got the powers as defined in the Code of Criminal Procedure for the purpose of releasing such person on bail or otherwise. This does not necessarily mean that a person alleged to have committed a non-cognizable and bailable offence cannot be arrested without a warrant issued by the Magistrate.

♦ The authorised officer exercising power to arrest under section 69 of the CGST Act, is not a Police Officer and, therefore, is not obliged in law to register FIR against the person arrested in respect of an offence under Sections 132 of the CGST Act.

♦ An authorised Officer is a ‘proper officer’ for the purposes of the CGST Act. As the authorised Officers are not Police Officers, the statements made before them in the course of inquiry are not inadmissible under Section 25 of the Evidence Act.

♦ Power to arrest a person by an authorized officer is statutory in character and should not be interfered with Section 69 of the CGST Act does not contemplate any magisterial intervention.

  • In view of the Supreme Court Judgment in Directorate of Enforcement v. Deepak Mahajan and the aforesaid Gujarat High Court Judgment, the arguments that prejudice is caused to the petitioners as they are not able to avail protection under Article 20(3) of the Constitution and/or the provisions of CrPC do not apply even when CGST Act is silent, are untenable in law.

Judicial Scrutiny

 When any person is arrested under Section 132(5) of the CGST Act, the said person has to be informed of the grounds of arrest and must necessarily be produced before a Magistrate under Section 69 (2) within a period of 24 hours.

 The above-stated would ensure judicial scrutiny over the acts of executive and it cannot be termed as unreasonable and/or excessive.

 Adding to its analysis, the Court stated that just because the CGST Act provides for both adjudications of civil liability and criminal prosecution doesn’t mean that the said Act is unfair or unreasonable.

  • Court prima facie finds force in the submission of the ASG that the Central Tax Officers are empowered to conduct intelligence-based enforcement action against taxpayers assigned to State Tax Administration under Section 6 of the CGST Act.
  • What emerges at the prima facie stage is that it is the case of the respondents that a tax collection mechanism has been converted into a disbursement mechanism as if it were a subsidy scheme.

To conclude the Court held that what emerges at the prima facie stage is that it is the case of the respondents that a tax collection mechanism has been converted into a disbursement mechanism as if it were a subsidy scheme.

Hence, in view of the serious allegations, the Court expressed that it is not inclined to interfere with the investigation at the present stage and that too in writ proceedings. At the same time, innocent persons cannot be arrested or harassed. Consequently, the applications for interim protection are dismissed with liberty to the parties to avail the statutory remedies.

It is settled law that though the powers of constitutional courts are wide and discretionary, yet there exist certain fetters in the exercise of such powers.

 In the Supreme Court decision of Hema Mishra v. State of U.P., (2014) 4 SCC 453, it was held that despite the fact that provision regarding pre-arrest bail, had been specifically omitted in Uttar Pradesh, the power under writ jurisdiction is to be exercised extremely sparingly.

Court’s view in the instant case is that the allegation that a tax collection mechanism has been converted into a disbursement mechanism most certainly requires investigation.

Bench stated that it has no doubt that the trial court, while considering the bail or remand or cancellation of bail application, ‘will separate the wheat from the chaff’ and will ensure that no innocent person against whom baseless allegations have been made is remanded to police/judicial custody.

Hence, the observations made herein are prima facie and shall not prejudice either of the parties at the stage of final arguments of the present writ petitions or in the proceedings for interim protection. [Dhruv Krishan Maggu v. Union of India, WP (C) No. 5454 of 2020, decided on 08-01-2021]

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