Introduction

The judgments on quashing of FIR/charge-sheet by the Supreme Court as well as numerous High Courts, have created a conundrum for the reason that there seems to be no uniformity and consensus in the findings of the courts on it. It is noteworthy that while the general illustrations/categories of cases for quashing had been previously laid down by the Supreme Court in State of Haryana v. Bhajan Lal1 there seems to have arisen an intriguing discourse pertaining to whether exoneration in departmental proceedings would lead to a discharge of the accused person concerned from criminal proceedings. This discourse has been settled time and again by the Supreme Court in its various decisions, the only difference being that such decisions have not been unanimously laying down the same law, and as such, there seems to be a division of opinions amongst all the High Courts, which have time and again “suitably” relied upon different decisions of the Supreme Court. In this article, by relying on the recent pronouncements of the Supreme Court and the High Courts, we have made an attempt to analyse the perplexed situation that has been created on account of differing opinions of the Supreme Court on whether exoneration in departmental proceedings would lead to discharge from criminal trial, which has sowed the seeds for varying decisions of the High Courts, and whether such discourse has bit the dust or it still remains ablaze with no clear and cogent finding on the same.

Quashing of FIR/Charge-sheet

It goes without saying that the landmark judgment for quashment of FIR/charge-sheet was of the Supreme Court in Bhajan Lal case2, wherein the Court had succinctly laid down the categories of cases/illustrations for quashing of FIR/charge-sheet by way of exercising extraordinary powers under Article 2263 of the Constitution of India or inherent powers under Section 4824 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973, either to prevent the abuse of process of court or otherwise to secure the ends of justice. However, it is apposite to consider the Supreme Court ruling in P.S. Rajya v. State of Bihar5, which set the ball rolling for discourse on the issue pertaining to continuance of criminal proceedings when the person concerned was exonerated from departmental proceedings. This ruling of Supreme Court became the focal point of discourse for its finding in following para of the judgment, as under:

23. Even though all these facts including the Report of the Central Vigilance Commission were brought to the notice of the High Court, unfortunately, the High Court took a view that the issues raised had to be gone into in the final proceedings and the Report of the Central Vigilance Commission, exonerating the appellant of the same charge in departmental proceedings would not conclude the criminal case against the appellant. We have already held that for the reasons given on the peculiar facts of this case, the criminal proceedings initiated against the appellant cannot be pursued. Therefore, we do not agree with the view taken by the High Court as stated above. These are the reasons for our order dated 27-3-1996 for allowing the appeal, quashing the impugned criminal proceedings, and giving consequential reliefs.

This foregoing extract from the ruling had raised a significant issue pertaining to whether exoneration in departmental proceedings would lead to discharge of the accused person from criminal trial, for it allegedly seemed to some courts that P.S. Rajya case6 had laid down the law on such discourse and as such it was vehemently discussed and elaborated by all the courts, which led to varying opinions, precedents and resultantly an “unsettled law” on it.

Whether exoneration in departmental proceedings would lead to discharge from criminal proceedings?

While P.S Rajya case7 had reiterated categories of cases by way of illustrations, wherein powers could be exercised for quashing of criminal prosecution as stated above, it was primarily laid down for the first time in Bhajan Lal case8. However, a novel issue had arisen from P.S. Rajya case9, which was “whether exoneration in departmental proceedings would lead to discharge from criminal proceedings,” since it prima facie seemed from the foregoing para as reproduced above, that the accused person was discharged from criminal proceedings on account of his exoneration in departmental proceedings.

Answering and thereby attempting to settle the discourse, was a subsequent case of State v. M. Krishna Mohan10, wherein the Supreme Court had held as under:

32. Mr Nageswara Rao relied upon a decision of this Court in P.S. Rajya v. State of Bihar11. The fact situation obtaining therein was absolutely different. In that case, in the vigilance report, the delinquent officer was shown to be innocent. It was at that juncture, an application for quashing of the proceedings was filed before the High Court under Section 482 of the Code of Criminal Procedure which was allowed relying on State of Haryana v. Bhajan Lal12 , holding:

23. Even though all these facts including the Report of the Central Vigilance Commission were brought to the notice of the High Court, unfortunately, the High Court took a view that the issues raised had to be gone into in the final proceedings and the Report of the Central Vigilance Commission, exonerating the appellant of the same charge in departmental proceedings would not conclude the criminal case against the appellant. We have already held that for the reasons given on the peculiar facts of this case, the criminal proceedings initiated against the appellant cannot be pursued.

33. The said decision was, therefore, rendered on the facts obtaining therein and cannot be said to be an authority for the proposition that exoneration in departmental proceeding ipso facto would lead to a judgment of acquittal in a criminal trial.

Therefore, the Supreme Court in M. Krishnan case13, endeavoured to resolve the discourse by stating that P.S. Rajya case14 had quashed the FIR/charge-sheet basis the merits of the case and as such it was not an “authority” on the issue that exoneration in departmental proceedings would ipso facto lead to a judgment of acquittal in criminal trial.

However, as the fate had it, the issue was yet again raised in Radheshyam Kejriwal v. State of W.B.15, wherein the Supreme Court, apart from the foregoing question of quashment of FIR/charge-sheet, also dealt with the other intriguing aspects i.e. whether the finding in a civil proceeding would be final and binding on criminal courts, whether exoneration in a departmental proceeding would create a bar on initiating criminal proceeding in view of Article 20(2)16 of the Constitution of India and Section 30017 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973. The Court, while dealing with the aforesaid issues stated as under:

38. …(iv) the finding against the person facing prosecution in the adjudication proceeding is not binding on the proceeding for criminal prosecution;

(v) adjudication proceeding by the Enforcement Directorate is not prosecution by a competent court of law to attract the provisions of Article 20(2) of the Constitution of India or Section 300 of the Code of Criminal Procedure;

(vi) the finding in the adjudication proceeding in favour of the person facing trial for identical violation will depend upon the nature of finding. If the exoneration in adjudication proceeding is on technical ground and not on merit, prosecution may continue; and

(vii) in case of exoneration, however, on merits where allegation is found to be not sustainable at all and person held innocent, criminal prosecution on the same set of facts and circumstances cannot be allowed to continue underlying principle being the higher standard of proof in criminal cases.

Therefore, primarily there are two takeaways from the aforesaid finding of the Supreme Court. Firstly, the issue of bar of Section 20(2) of the Constitution of India and Section 300 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973, has been subtly deprecated by it, stating that such departmental proceedings are completely distinct from criminal proceedings since they are not prosecution by a court of law.

Secondly, it has stated that if exoneration in departmental proceedings was on merits on identical violations/allegations, then criminal prosecution on the same facts and circumstances cannot be allowed to continue, with the underlying principle that while the departmental proceedings are based on “preponderance of probabilities”, criminal proceedings are based on “higher standard of proof i.e. proof beyond reasonable doubt”, and as such if it has not been proved in the former case, chances of such allegations being proved in the latter scenario is bleak.

Though the issue ostensibly seems to be resolved and clarified, however it falls foul on two premises. Firstly, the Court has distinguished between departmental proceedings and criminal proceedings in order to state that there can be no bar of Section 20(2) of the Constitution of India and Section 300 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973, for the reason that the departmental proceedings are not “prosecution by a court of law”, and thereafter the Court has drawn a nexus between the two proceedings in order to state that if exoneration is on merits, the non-“identical violations/allegations” which have been found to be not sustainable at all in departmental proceedings, criminal proceedings cannot continue. Therefore, what the Court has done is not only to contradict itself in the aforesaid findings but also indeliberately engendered a very significant issue as to whether the departmental proceedings even if giving a finding on “merits” on “identical violations/allegations” can be of such a nature as to discharge the accused person from a criminal trial/proceedings.

In this regard, reliance may be placed upon numerous findings of the Supreme Court including in Iqbal Singh Marwah v. Meenakshi Marwah18, as was also affirmed and reiterated by the High Courts, including the High Court of M.P. in Kailash v. Arjun Singh19, wherein the Court had stated that the findings of fact recorded by civil court do not have any bearing so far as the criminal case is concerned and vice versa and are neither binding on each other, while dealing with the same parties on the same subject-matter, since standard of proof in civil cases is preponderance of probabilities while in criminal cases, it is proof beyond reasonable doubt. Therefore, the distinction carved out between civil and criminal proceedings is the “standard of proof”.

Further in State of Rajasthan v. B.K. Meena20, the Court has drawn a distinction between the two proceedings stating that the objective of the two proceedings is completely distinct from each other, for in disciplinary proceedings, question is whether the accused is guilty of such conduct as would merit his removal from service or a lesser punishment, as the case may be, whereas in the criminal proceedings question is whether offences registered against him under the Prevention of Corruption Act, 198821 (and the Penal Code, 186022, if any) are established and, if established, what sentence should be imposed upon him. Hence, the standard of proof, mode of enquiry and the rules governing such enquiry and trial in both the cases are entirely distinct and different.

Therefore, drawing corollary from the same, there lies no reason as to why an unreasonable nexus be drawn between departmental proceedings and criminal proceedings on the basis of “standard of proof” which in case of departmental proceedings is identical to civil proceedings i.e. of “preponderance of probabilities,” and such finding of civil proceedings have not been made binding on criminal proceedings. Further, it also seems absurd that such exoneration on merits on identical allegations is being made binding on criminal proceedings on the same ground.

Additional criteria beyond “exoneration on merits” for quashing of criminal proceedings

Adding to the aforesaid ambiguity in law are the decisions of the Supreme Court in Radheshyam Kejriwal case23, State (NCT of Delhi) v. Ajay Kumar Tyagi24 and Ashoo Surendranath Tewari v. CBI25, wherein while in the first case as has already been elaborated above, the Supreme Court has held that “exoneration on merits on identical violations which are not found to be true at all, would lead to discharge of the person concerned from criminal proceedings, the underlying principle being higher standard of proof”.

Per contra, in Ajay Kumar Tyagi case26, Radheshyam Kejriwal case27 was not considered and the Court came to the finding that finding of departmental authority of exoneration or whatsoever would not be considered for quashing of criminal proceedings for they were held by two different entities. Hence, Ajay Kumar Tyagi case28 was per incuriam. Subsequently, in Ashoo Surendranath Tewari case29, the Court considered the law laid down in Radheshyam Kejriwal case30, and allowed quashing of FIR/charge-sheet since the accused person was exonerated in departmental proceedings on merits on identical violations/allegations. However, on account of such distinct findings and unsettled law of the Supreme Court, various High Courts began differing in their opinion on such quashing and as such conveniently relied upon either of the findings of the Supreme Court to reach a conclusion of either quashment or its dismissal. Amongst such decisions is the decision of the High Court of Madhya Pradesh, Bench at Indore, in Rajendra Kumar Gautam v. State of M.P.31, wherein the Court was considering the question of quashing of FIR/charge-sheet when the person concerned was accused of taking bribe and charged for offences under Sections 732 and 2033 of the Prevention of Corruption Act, 1988. While he was exonerated in departmental proceedings of the charges framed against him, the pending criminal trial against him was not quashed by the High Court, with a very intriguing finding as under:

30. At the cost of repetition, we would like to lay emphasis on para 39 of the judgment of Radheshyam Kejriwal case34 wherein in certain terms it was held that where exoneration on merits establishes that there is no contravention of the provisions of the Act, the trial can be interfered with. There was neither any occasion for the departmental authorities to examine the aspect of violation of provisions of the PC Act, the presumption clause, etc. in the departmental inquiry nor their findings can be read to hold that no contravention of provisions of the Act, namely, the PC Act is established. In the domestic enquiry, the culpability of petitioners was examined on the touchstone of conduct rules based on limited evidence produced in the enquiry. In the criminal case, the court will examine the evidence in the light of provisions of the PC Act. The court is empowered to summon witnesses and, in their absence, issue warrant to secure their presence for the purpose of recording their statements in order to separate the wheat from chaff.”

Moreover, the aforesaid finding of the Court elaborates and reiterates implicitly the finding in B.K. Meena case35, wherein the Court had held that standard of proof, mode of enquiry and rules governing the enquiry and trial would be entirely different in both the cases, and hence, mere exoneration in departmental proceedings would not entitle the accused person for discharge from criminal proceedings, for criminal proceedings would adjudge the accused person on the scale of whether the offences under the PC Act were established or not on the basis of evidence, and summon witnesses and secure their presence through warrant, if required, as per the criminal procedure, and departmental proceedings would adjudge whether the charged official is guilty of such conduct as would merit his removal from service or a lesser punishment.

It is to be noted that the same view was also taken by the M.P. High Court's Principal Bench in Ajit Singh Sodha v. Union of India36, wherein it had explicitly stated that exoneration in departmental proceedings would not absolve or disallow continuance of criminal trial, and for such a finding had relied upon the decision of the Supreme Court in Ajay Kumar Tyagi case37. It is to be noted that the aforesaid judgment is pending before the Supreme Court, as Ajit Singh Sodha v. Union of India38, wherein the Court, vide order dated 13-09-2021, has stayed operation of the aforesaid impugned order of the Principal Bench, while relying upon the decision of Ashoo Surendranath Tewari case39.

Per contra, in Keshav v. State of Maharashtra40, it was also held that the allegations made in the criminal complaint are similar and identical to the allegations made against the applicant in the departmental enquiry proceedings, and hence, the very foundation of criminal complaint being the identical allegations should be set aside for it cannot be said that while the officer has committed no misconduct on the basis of one set of allegations, the officer has prima facie committed criminal offence on the basis of same set of allegations.

Similarly, the High Court of Orissa in Minaketan Pani v. State of Orissa41, had allowed quashment, while relying upon the judgment of the Supreme Court in Radheshyam Kejriwal case42 and Ashoo Surendranath Tewari case43.

It is seemingly significant to consider the very recent judgment of the Hon'ble Supreme Court in J. Sekar v. Directorate of Enforcement44, wherein it has curiously placed reliance on the decisions of the Hon'ble Supreme Court in Radheshyam Kejriwal case45 and Ashoo Surendranath Tewari case46, and has not relied upon Ajay Kumar Tyagi case47, which was per incuriam (as discussed above), and hence countenance with the position of law that exoneration on merits in identical allegations would allow the person to be discharged from criminal trial. Hence, the Courts have time and again differed in their view while dealing with quashment of FIR/charge-sheet and in such a process have relied upon varying findings of the Supreme Court to substantiate the same.

However, in cases like Rajendra Kumar Gautam case48 and Ajit Singh Sodha case49, wherein despite exoneration, criminal proceedings have not been quashed, the Court has succinctly distinguished departmental proceedings from criminal proceedings. However, such additional criteria which would “ipso facto” not allow for quashment on the ground of exoneration in departmental proceedings was not clearly laid down by the Courts in either of the cases. In this regard, reliance may be placed upon the Supreme Court ruling in Union of India v. Dalbir Singh50, wherein while dealing with the scope of judicial review, Court has laid down the following parameters on the basis of which the Courts can intervene in the order of appellate disciplinary authority:

21. (a) the enquiry is held by a competent authority; (b) the enquiry is held according to the procedure prescribed in that behalf; (c) there is violation of the principles of natural justice in conducting the proceedings; (d) the authorities have disabled themselves from reaching a fair conclusion by some considerations extraneous to the evidence and merits of the case; (e) the authorities have allowed themselves to be influenced by irrelevant or extraneous considerations; (f) the conclusion, on the very face of it, is so wholly arbitrary and capricious that no reasonable person could ever have arrived at such conclusion; (g) the disciplinary authority had erroneously failed to admit the admissible and material evidence; (h) the disciplinary authority had erroneously admitted inadmissible evidence which influenced the finding; and (i) the finding of fact is based on no evidence.

Therefore, though primarily the case dealt with scope of judicial review, yet what can be culled out from the above can be the scenarios which the Courts can consider while deciding cases where exoneration on merits will not be considered ipso facto for quashment. As such where enquiry has been in violation of principle of natural justice, where the authorities have disabled themselves from reaching a fair conclusion by some considerations extraneous to the evidence and merits of the case, where they have allowed themselves to be influenced by irrelevant or extraneous considerations, where conclusion, on the very face of it, is so wholly arbitrary and capricious that no reasonable person could ever have arrived at such conclusion, where it would have erroneously failed to admit the admissible and material evidence, and where it had erroneously admitted inadmissible evidence which influenced the finding or where the finding of fact is based on no evidence, could be considered to be some of the scenarios, which would not “ipso facto” allow for quashment on exoneration in departmental proceedings on merits.

The curious case of “per incuriam” and the nature of binding precedent in context of “strength of the Bench” delivering the judgment

It is to be noted that inquisitively, a primary question had also arisen before the Court with respect to the three cases on the aforesaid issue of “exoneration in departmental proceedings leading to discharge in criminal proceedings,” in Radheshyam Kejriwal case51, Ajay Kumar Tyagi case52 and Ashoo Surendranath Tewari case53. While the finding of the Supreme Court in Radheshyam Kejriwal case54 was considered in Ashoo Surendranath Tewari case55, the same was not considered in Ajay Kumar Tyagi case56, and hence the latter was per incuriam. In this regard, question arose as to which finding of the Supreme Court would be binding, especially in the context that whether Radheshyam Kejriwal case57 should be considered a judgment of two Judges (in view of dissent by one Judge) as against the judgment of Ajay Kumar Tyagi case58, which should be considered to be a judgment of three-Judge Bench as it was delivered by three Judges unanimously.

The High Court of M.P. in Rajendra Kumar Gautam case59 had, while subtly refuting the finding of the Supreme Court in Shanti Fragrances v. Union of India60 (which is under reference before a larger Bench of the Supreme Court), relied upon Ajay Kumar Tyagi case61 to dismiss quashment. This was also followed in J. Rajesh Kumar v. CBI62, by the High Court of Karnataka and in Sarwan Singh v. State63, by the J&K High Court, wherein the courts took the view that Ajay Kumar Tyagi case64 would apply and not Ashoo Surendranath Tewari case65.

However, contrary to the said finding, in Minaketan Pani case66, the Orissa High Court had to adjudicate on an identical issue of exoneration on merits resulting in discharge from criminal proceedings, wherein it allowed the quashment of criminal trial, after having not been persuaded by the reasoning of other High Courts, stating that when there is a conflict between two decisions of the Supreme Court of same Bench strength, it is later of the decisions that would prevail, which was held by the Court by relying upon the decisions of Full Benches of three High Courts i.e. the High Court of Karnataka in Govindanaik G. Kalaghatigi v. West Patent Press Co. Ltd.67, the High Court of Gujarat in Gujarat Housing Board v. Nagajibhai Laxmanbhai68 and the Madhya Pradesh High Court in Jabalpur Bus Operators Assn. v. State of M.P.69 It is to be noted that the Court agreed with the view of the Court in Shanti Fragrances case70 (which was under reference before a larger Bench of the Supreme Court), wherein the total strength of the Bench that decided the case was deemed to be the Bench strength of that decision regardless of the dissenting opinions.

Conclusion

Drawing a conclusion from the aforesaid analysis of judgments on quashment of FIR seems effortlessly onerous, for the sole and primary reason being no conclusive and uniform finding of the Supreme Court or High Courts on the specific criteria being laid down for discharge from criminal proceedings on being exonerated on merits in departmental proceedings. However, an attempt to cull out some criteria would ease the process and provide a direction to such cases of quashing of FIR/charge-sheet, and inadvertently bring uniformity and clarity in the rulings of all the courts. At the same time, it has become all the more necessary for the Courts to lay down binding precedent in light of contrary findings on the said discourse, for any further delay would only aggravate the conundrum. Lastly and most significantly, our attention has to be drawn towards such findings of the Court which have either relied upon or disagreed with the finding of the Supreme Court in Shanti Fragrances case71 which was pending adjudication on the issue of strength of Bench deciding the binding nature of such precedent and have implicitly concurred with the view that the numerical strength of the Bench is of primary importance. A uniformity and specific criteria for such rulings, in the interregnum, would ease down the dilemma.


† Advocate, High Court of M.P., Bench at Indore. Author can be reached at <shruti02.awasthi@gmail.com>.

†† Advocate, High Court of M.P., Bench at Indore.

1. 1992 Supp (1) SCC 335 : 1992 SCC (Cri) 426, para 8.1.

2. 1992 Supp (1) SCC 335 : 1992 SCC (Cri) 426.

3. Constitution of India, Art. 226.

4. Criminal Procedure Code, 1973, S. 482.

5. (1996) 9 SCC 1, 9.

6. (1996) 9 SCC 1.

7. (1996) 9 SCC 1.

8. 1992 Supp (1) SCC 335 : 1992 SCC (Cri) 426.

9. (1996) 9 SCC 1.

10. (2007) 14 SCC 667, 676.

11. (1996) 9 SCC 1.

12. 1992 Supp (1) SCC 335.

13. (2007) 14 SCC 667.

14. (1996) 9 SCC 1.

15. (2011) 3 SCC 581, 598.

16. Constitution of India, Art. 20(2).

17. Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973, S. 300.

18. (2005) 4 SCC 370, para 24.

19. 2022 SCC OnLine MP 870, paras 10 and 11.

20. (1996) 6 SCC 417.

21. Prevention of Corruption Act, 1988.

22. Penal Code, 1860.

23. (2011) 3 SCC 581.

24. (2012) 9 SCC 685.

25. (2020) 9 SCC 636, paras 7 and 8.

26. (2012) 9 SCC 685.

27. (2011) 3 SCC 581.

28. (2012) 9 SCC 685.

29. (2020) 9 SCC 636.

30. (2011) 3 SCC 581.

31. 2021 SCC OnLine MP 5843, para 30.

32. Prevention of Corruption Act, 1988, S. 7.

33. Prevention of Corruption Act, 1988, S. 20.

34. (2011) 3 SCC 581.

35. (1996) 6 SCC 417.

36. 2021 SCC OnLine MP 920, para 34.

37. (2012) 9 SCC 685.

38. 2021 SCC OnLine SC 3364.

39. (2020) 9 SCC 636.

40. 2022 SCC OnLine Bom 1314, paras 7 and 8.

41. 2022 SCC OnLine Ori 3304, para 26.

42. (2011) 3 SCC 581.

43. (2020) 9 SCC 636.

44. Ajit Singh Sodha v. Union of India, (2022) 7 SCC 370, para 19.

45. (2011) 3 SCC 581.

46. (2020) 9 SCC 636.

47. (2012) 9 SCC 685.

48. 2021 SCC OnLine MP 5843.

49. 2021 SCC OnLine SC 3364.

50. (2021) 11 SCC 321, 328-329.

51. (2011) 3 SCC 581.

52. (2012) 9 SCC 685.

53. (2020) 9 SCC 636.

54. (2011) 3 SCC 581.

55. (2020) 9 SCC 636.

56. (2012) 9 SCC 685.

57. (2011) 3 SCC 581.

58. (2012) 9 SCC 685.

59. 2021 SCC OnLine MP 5843.

60. (2018) 11 SCC 305, para 18.

61. (2012) 9 SCC 685.

62. 2021 SCC OnLine Ker 3870, paras 21-26.

63. 2020 SCC OnLine J&K 736, para 20.

64. (2012) 9 SCC 685.

65. (2020) 9 SCC 636.

66. 2022 SCC OnLine Ori 3304.

67. 1979 SCC OnLine Kar 56, para 4.

68. 1985 SCC OnLine Guj 127, paras 11 and 12.

69. 2002 SCC OnLine MP 631.

70. (2018) 11 SCC 305.

71. (2018) 11 SCC 305.

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