Supreme Court: The bench of BR Gavai and PS Narasimha*, JJ has decided two important questions relating to the Prevention of Corruption Act, 1988 and has held:
- There is no illegality in the action of the appointing authority, the DoPT, if it calls for, refers, and considers the opinion of the Central Vigilance Commission before it takes its final decision on the request for sanction for prosecuting a public servant.
- The period of three months, extended by one more month for legal consultation, is mandatory. The consequence of non-compliance with this mandatory requirement shall not be quashing of the criminal proceeding for that very reason. The competent authority shall be Accountable for the delay and be subject to judicial review and administrative action by the CVC under Section 8(1)(f) of the Central Vigilance Commission Act, 2003 (CVC Act).
Whether an order of the Appointing Authority granting sanction for prosecution of a public servant under Section 19 of the Prevention of Corruption Act, 1988, would be rendered illegal on the ground of acting as per dictation if it consults the Central Vigilance Commission for its decision?
The Central Vigilance Commission, constituted under the CVC Act is specifically entrusted with the duty and function of providing expert advice on the subject. It may be necessary for the appointing authority to call for and seek the opinion of the CVC before it takes any decision on the request for sanction for prosecution. The statutory scheme under which the appointing authority could call for, seek, and consider the advice of the CVC can neither be termed as acting under dictation nor a factor which could be referred to as an irrelevant consideration. The opinion of the CVC is only advisory. It is nevertheless a valuable input in the decision-making process of the appointing authority. The final decision of the appointing authority must be of its own by application of independent mind. The issue is, therefore, answered by holding that there is no illegality in the action of the appointing authority, the DoPT, if it calls for, refers, and considers the opinion of the Central Vigilance Commission before it takes its final decision on the request for sanction for prosecuting a public servant.
Whether the period of three months for the Appointing Authority to decide upon a request for sanction is mandatory or not? Whether the criminal proceedings can be quashed if the decision is not taken within the mandatory period?
Statutory provisions requiring sanction before prosecution either under Section 197 CrPC or under Section 97 of the PC Act intend to serve the purpose of protecting a public servant. These protections are not available to other citizens because of the inherent vulnerabilities of a public servant and the need to protect them. However, the said protection is neither a shield against dereliction of duty nor an absolute immunity against corrupt practices. The limited immunity or bar is only subject to a sanction by the appointing authority.
Grant of sanction being an exercise of executive power, it is subject to the standard principles of judicial review such as application of independent mind; only by the competent authority, without bias, after consideration of relevant material and by eschewing irrelevant considerations. As the power to grant sanction for prosecution has legal consequences, it must naturally be exercised within a reasonable period.
The new proviso to Section 19 of PC Act mandating that the competent authority shall endeavour to convey the decision on the proposal for sanction within a period of three months can only be read and understood as a compelling statutory obligation.
Refusing to accept State’s submission that this proviso is only directory in nature, the Court observed,
“the consistent effort made by all branches of the State, the Judiciary, the Legislative, and the Executive, to ensure early decision-making by the competent authority cannot be watered down by lexical interpretation of the expression endeavour in the proviso. The sanctioning authority must bear in mind that public confidence in the maintenance of the Rule of Law, which is fundamental in the administration of justice, is at stake here.”
The Court stressed that by causing delay in considering the request for sanction, the sanctioning authority stultifies judicial scrutiny, thereby vitiating the process of determination of the allegations against the corrupt official. Delays in prosecuting the corrupt breeds a culture of impunity and leads to systemic resignation to the existence of corruption in public life. Such inaction is fraught with the risk of making future generations getting accustomed to corruption as a way of life. Viewed in this context, the duty to take an early decision inheres in the power vested in the appointing authority to grant or not to grant sanction.
The intention of the Parliament is evident from a combined reading of the first proviso to Section 19, which uses the expression ‘endeavour’ with the subsequent provisions. The third proviso mandates that the extended period can be granted only for one month after reasons are recorded in writing. There is no further extension. The fourth proviso, which empowers the Central Government to prescribe necessary guidelines for ensuring the mandate, may also be noted in this regard. It can thus be concluded that the Parliament intended that the process of grant of sanction must be completed within four months, which includes the extended period of one month.
The Court, however, made clear that the non-compliance with a mandatory period cannot and should not automatically lead to the quashing of criminal proceedings because the prosecution of a public servant for corruption has an element of public interest having a direct bearing on the rule of law. It must also be kept in mind that the complainant or victim has no other remedy available for judicial redressal if the criminal proceedings stand automatically quashed. At the same time, a decision to grant deemed sanction may cause prejudice to the rights of the accused as there would also be non-application of mind in such cases.
Maintaining the delicate balance between the competing interests of the parties involved, the While arriving at this balance, the Court must keep in mind the duty cast on the competent authority to grant sanction within the stipulated period of time. There must be a consequence of dereliction of duty to giving sanction within the time specified. The way forward is to make the appointing authority accountable for the delay in the grant of sanction.
“Accountability in itself is an essential principle of administrative law. Judicial review of administrative action will be effective and meaningful by ensuring accountability of the officer or authority in charge.”
Hence, upon expiry of the three months and the additional one-month period, the aggrieved party, be it the complainant, accused or victim, would be entitled to approach the concerned writ court. They are entitled to seek appropriate remedies, including directions for action on the request for sanction and for the corrective measure on accountability that the sanctioning authority bears. This is especially crucial if the non-grant of sanction is withheld without reason, resulting in the stifling of a genuine case of corruption. Simultaneously, the CVC shall enquire into the matter in the exercise of its powers under Section 8(1)(e) and (f) and take such corrective action as it is empowered under the CVC Act.
[Vijay Rajmohan v. State, 2022 SCC OnLine SC 1377, decided on 11.10.2022]
*Judgment by: Justice PS Narasimha
For appellant: Senior Advocate Mahesh Jethmalani and AOR P.V. Yogeswaran
For State: ASG S.V. Raju