Supreme Court: The 3-judge bench of SA Bobde, CJ and A.S. Bopanna and V. Ramasubramanian*, JJ has reiterated that the Courts should not thwart any investigation unless no cognizable offence or offence of any kind is disclosed in the first information report that the Court will not permit an investigation to go on.
Referring to the decision in State of Haryana v. Bhajan Lal, (1992) Supp. (1) SCC 335, the Court said,
“(…) the power of quashing should be exercised very sparingly and with circumspection and that too in the rarest of rare cases. While examining a complaint, the quashing of which is sought, the Court cannot embark upon an enquiry as to the reliability or genuineness or otherwise of the allegations made in the FIR or in the complaint.”
In S.M. Datta v. State of Gujarat, (2001) 7 SCC 659 the Court cautioned that criminal proceedings ought not to be scuttled at the initial stage.
“Quashing of a complaint should rather be an exception and a rarity than an ordinary rule. (…) if a perusal of the first information report leads to disclosure of an offence even broadly, law courts are barred from usurping the jurisdiction of the police, since the two organs of the State operate in two specific spheres of activities and one ought not to tread over the other sphere.”
FIR against Skoda Auto Volkswagen over alleged use of cheat devices
Skoda Auto Volkswagen India Private Limited is engaged in the business of manufacture, import and sale of passenger vehicles in India. The 3rd Respondent in the case lodged an FIR, alleging that he had bought 7 Audi Brand cars from the authorised dealers of the manufacturing Companies and knowing fully well that their vehicles have been installed with cheat devices, the manufacturer had prepared wrong records and documents.
The Petitioner moved Allahabad High Court seeking quashing of the FIR alleging that the FIR is based entirely upon the order of the NGT, which is the subject matter of two civil appeals before the Supreme Court.
Allahabad High Court rejected the prayer for quashing of the FIR. However, the High Court protected the officers of the petitioner against arrest till the submission of the Report under Section 173(2) Cr.P.C. subject however to the condition that they shall cooperate in the investigation.
Not satisfied with a mere protection against arrest and the refusal of the Allahabad High Court to quash the FIR, the petitioner argued before the Supreme Court:
- That the Police cannot investigate an issue, the substratum of which is sub judice before this Court in the civil appeals arising out of the order of the NGT; and
- That the High Court failed to take note of the long delay on the part of the 3rd Respondent in lodging the complaint and
- That the VAHAN Portal of the Government shows the purchase of only 3 vehicles as against the claim of the 3rd Respondent to have purchased 7 vehicles.
Why the Supreme Court refused to quash FIR
On Issue 1
Should pendency of the Civil Appeals and the interim order passed by Supreme Court be taken as a deterrent for anyone else to lodge a police complaint and seek an investigation?
Two original applications came to be filed before the NGT in the year 2015, alleging that the manufacturers of the vehicles in question were employing deceit devices. This coincided with the issue of notice by the Automotive Research Association of India to the manufacturers. The applicants before the NGT did not seek any relief for themselves, as purchasers of vehicles. The reliefs sought by the applicants before the NGT were broad and general. Hence,
“ (…) the order of the NGT, passed on the applications filed by certain individuals not claiming as purchasers of vehicles, cannot be taken as an impediment for an individual who purchased cars from the manufacturers, to lodge a complaint, if he has actually suffered on account of any representation made by the manufacturers.”
Further, the interim order passed by the Supreme Court not to take any coercive steps has to be understood only in the context of the aforesaid directions of the NGT which became the subject matter of the Civil Appeals.
Can police investigate into the same set of allegations which form the subject matter of proceedings pending adjudication before Supreme Court?
The question whether such devices are installed in the cars purchased by the 3rd respondent herein and the question whether there was any representation in this regard to the petitioner, are all questions of fact, peculiar and particular to the 3rd respondent herein. NGT had no occasion to examine the cars purchased by the 3rd respondent herein.
The Court said,
“At this stage no one can presume whether the defence of the manufacturer to the police complaint will be purely on a question of fact or purely on a question of law or on mixed questions of fact and law.”
- If the petitioner takes a defence that no such devices were installed in the cars purchased by the 3rd respondent or that there was no (mis)representation in this regard, it will be a pure question of fact, which cannot be gone into in a quash petition.
- If the petitioner takes a defence that the installation of such devices, though true, does not violate any law, then it will be a pure question of law.
The Court said that the action initiated by the Automotive Research Association of India in November 2015 and the proceedings that went on before the National Green Tribunal from the year 2015 to the year 2019, have to be seen in the light of the Dieselgate Scandal. All of them were part of the global outrage that actually concerned the damage caused to the environment by the emissions from the cars allegedly fitted with manipulative devices.
The proceedings before the NGT were not intended to address issues relating to individuals, such as
(i) whether any emissions manipulation software, called in common parlance as ‘defeat devices’ were installed in the vehicles purchased by certain individuals; and
(ii) whether any representation was made to the purchasers of the cars in which such devices had been installed, about the emission efficiency level of the cars
Hence, the Court rejected the contention that the substratum of the police complaint is something that is already the subject matter of adjudication before this Court in the appeals arising out of the order of the NGT. It held that the High Court has been fair to the petitioner, by granting protection against arrest till the filing of the report under section 173(2) of the Code.
On Issue 2
Mere delay in lodging the complaint, cannot by itself be a ground to quash the FIR. The law is too well settled on this aspect to warrant any reference to precedents.
On Issue 3
The Court did not go into the third issue as it is a question of fact which has to be established only in the course of investigation/trial.
[Skoda Auto Volkswagen India Private Limited v. State of Uttar Pradesh, 2020 SCC OnLine SC 958, decided on 26.11.2020]
*Justice V. Ramasubramanian has penned this judgment
For Petitioner: Senior Advocate Dr. Abhishek Manu Singhvi
For 3rd Respondent: Senior Advocate Maninder Singh
 In September-2015, allegations of installation of manipulation devices by car manufacturers emerged from the US Environmental Protection Agency triggering investigations in several European Union States. After claims were lodged and legal action initiated, the German Federal Motor Transport Authority appears to have given permission in June-2016 for the recall of about 2 million vehicles across Europe. In the light of these developments, one of the manufacturers entered into an agreement with the US Environmental Protection Agency in December-2016 giving certain options to the customers. These and the subsequent developments, which attained notoriety as the diesel-gate 18 scandal, led to the German Federal Court of Justice (Bundesgerichtshof-BGH) giving a ruling on May 25, 2020 in favour of the car owners for damages.