|Justice Tarun Chatterjee|
Supreme Court of India
The Supreme Court in M/s Mandvi Co-op Bank Ltd. v Nimesh B. Thakore ruled that in cheque bouncing cases, the right to give evidence on affidavit, as provided to the complainant under section 145 of the Negotiable Instruments Act, is not available to the accused for expeditious decision in such mounting cases which are chocking the administration of criminal justice system in the country.
A bench comprising justices Tarun Chatterjee and Aftab Alam said it is not difficult to see that sections 143 to 147 were inserted in the Act by the Negotiable Instruments (Amendment and Miscellaneous Provisions) Act, 2002 to do away with all the stages and processes in a regular criminal trial that normally cause inordinate delay in its conclusion and to make the trial procedure as expeditious as possible without in any way compromising on the right of the accused for a fair trial.
16. It may be noted that the provisions of Sections 143, 144, 145 and 147 expressly depart from and override the provisions of the Code of Criminal Procedure, the main body of adjective law for criminal trials. The provisions of Section 146 similarly depart from the principles of the Indian Evidence Act. Section 143 makes it possible for the complaints under Section 138 of the Act to be tried in the summary manner, except, of course, for the relatively small number of cases where the Magistrate feels that the nature of the case is such that a sentence of imprisonment for a term exceeding one year may have to be passed or that it is, for any other reason, undesirable to try the case summarily. It is, however, significant that the procedure of summary trials is adopted under Section 143 subject to the qualification "as far as possible", thus, leaving sufficient flexibility so as not to affect the quick flow of the trial process. Even while following the procedure of summary trials, the non-obstante clause and the expression "as far as possible" used in Section 143 coupled with the non-obstante clause in Section 145 allows for the evidence of the complainant to be given on affidavit, that is, in the absence of the accused. This would have been impermissible (even in a summary trial under the Code of Criminal Procedure) in view of Sections 251 and 254 and especially Section 273 of the Code. The accused, however, is fully protected, as under Sub-section (2) of Section 145 he has the absolute and unqualified right to have the complainant and any or all of his witnesses summoned for cross-examination. Sub-section (3) of Section 143 mandates that the trial would proceed, as far as practicable, on a day-to-day basis and Sub-section (4) of the section requires the Magistrate to make the endeavour to conclude the trial within six months from the date of filing of the complaint. Section 144 makes the process of service of summons simpler and cuts down the long time ordinarily consumed in service of summons in a regular civil suit or a criminal trial. Section 145 with its non-obstante clause, as noted above, makes it possible for the evidence of the complainant to be taken in the absence of the accused. But the affidavit of the complainant (or any of his witnesses) may be read in evidence "subject to all just exceptions". In other words, anything inadmissible in evidence, e.g., irrelevant facts or hearsay matters would not be taken in as evidence, even though stated on affidavit. Section 146, making a major departure from the principles of the Evidence Act provides that the bank's slip or memo with the official mark showing that the cheque was dishonoured would by itself give rise to the presumption of dishonour of the cheque, unless and until that fact was disproved. Section 147 makes the offences punishable under the Act, compoundable.
17. It is not difficult to see that Sections 142 to 147 lay down a kind of a special code for the trial of offences under Chapter XVII of the Negotiable Instruments Act and Sections 143 to 147 were inserted in the Act by the Negotiable Instruments (Amendment and Miscellaneous Provisions) Act, 2002 to do away with all the stages and processes in a regular criminal trial that normally cause inordinate delay in its conclusion and to make the trial procedure as expeditious as possible without in any way compromising on the right of the accused for a fair trial.
18. Here we must take notice of the fact that cases under Section 138 of the Act have been coming in such great multitude that even the introduction of such radical measures to make the trial procedure simplified and speedy has been of little help and cases of dishonoured cheques continue to pile up giving rise to an unbearable burden on the criminal court system. The Law Commission in its report number 213 sent to the Union Minister for Law and Justice on November 24, 2008 advocated the setting up of Fast Track Magisterial courts for dealing with the huge pendency of dishonoured cheque cases. In paragraph 1.5 of the report it was stated as follows:
1.5. Over 38 lac cheque bouncing cases are pending in various courts in the country. There are 7,66,974 cases pending in criminal courts in Delhi at the Magisterial level as on 1st June, 2008. Out of this huge workload, a substantial portion is of cases under Section 138 of the Negotiable Instruments Act which alone count for 5,14,433 cases (cheque bouncing). According to Gujarat High Court sources, there are approximately two lac cheque bouncing cases all over t he State, with the majority of them (84,000 cases) in Ahmedabad, followed by Surat, Vadodara and Rajkot. 73,000 cases were filed under Section 138 of the Negotiable Instruments Act (cheque bouncing) on a single day by a private telecom company before a Bangalore court, informed the Chief Justice of India, K. G. Balakrishnan, urging the Government to appoint more judges to deal with 1.8 crore pending cases in the country. The number of complaints which are pending in Bombay courts On the date of the report, there were 5,91,818 cases pending in sub-ordinate courts of State of Maharashtra, 1,57,191 cases pending in the sub-ordinate courts of State of Karnataka, 1,10,311 cases pending in the sub-ordinate courts of State of Kerala and 5,14,433 cases in the sub-ordinate courts of the State of Delhi under Section 138 of the Negotiable Instrument Act. seriously cast shadow on the credibility of our trade, commerce and business. Immediate steps have to be taken by all concerned to ensure restoration of the credibility of trade, commerce and business.
19. The situation arising from the mounting arrears is so grave that in the `Vision Statement' presented by the Union Minister for Law and Justice to the Chief Justice of India in course of the National Consultation for strengthening the Judiciary towards reducing pendency and delays held on October 24, 2009, cases of dishonoured cheques were cited among one of the major bottlenecks in the criminal justice system. In paragraph 2 under the heading `the Action Plan' it was stated as follows:
2. Identification of Bottlenecks: Clearing the System
1. Studies have shown that cases under certain statutes and area of law are choking dockets of magisterial and specialised courts, and the same need to be identified.
2. Bottlenecks shall be identified as follows:
a) Matrimonial cases.
b) Cases under Section 498A of the Indian Penal Code, 1860.
c) Cases under Section 143 of the Negotiable Instrument Act, 1881.
d) to (i) xxxxxxxxxx
20. Once it is realized that Sections 143 to 147 were designed especially to lay down a much simplified procedure for the trial of dishonoured cheque cases with the sole object that the trial of those cases should follow a course even swifter than a summary trial and once it is seen that even the special procedure failed to effectively and expeditiously handle the vast multitude of cases coming to the court, the claim of the accused that on being summoned under Section 145(2), the complainant or any of his witnesses whose evidence is given on affidavit must be made to depose in examination-in- chief all over again plainly appears to be a demand for meaningless duplication, apparently aimed at delaying the trial.
21. Nevertheless, the submissions made on behalf of the parties must be taken note of and properly dealt with. Mr Ranjit Kumar, learned Senior Advocate, appearing for the appellant in appeal arising from SLP (Crl.) No. 4760/2006 pointed out that Sub-section (2) of Section 145 uses both the words, "may" (with reference to the court) and "shall" (with reference to the prosecution or the accused). It was, therefore, beyond doubt that in the event an application is made by the accused, the court would be obliged to summon the person giving evidence on affidavit in terms of Section 145(1) without having any discretion in the matter. There can be no disagreement with this part of the submission but the question is when the person who has given his evidence on affidavit appears in court, whether it is also open to the accused to insist that before cross-examining him as to the facts stated in the affidavit he must first depose in examination-in-chief and be required to verbally state what is already said in the affidavit. Mr. Ranjit Kumar referred to Section 137 of the Indian Evidence Act, that defines "examination-in- chief", "cross-examination" and "re-examination" and on that basis sought to argue that the word "examine" occurring in Section 145(2) must be construed to mean all the three kinds of examination of a witness. This, according to him, coupled with the use of the word "shall" with reference to the application made by the accused made it quite clear that a person giving his evidence on affidavit, on being summoned under Section 145(2) at the instance of the accused must begin his deposition with examination-in-chief, before he may be cross-examined by the accused. In this regard he submitted that Section 145 did not override the Evidence Act or the Negotiable Instruments Act or any other law except the Code of Criminal Procedure. He further submitted that the plain language of Section 145(2) was clear and unambiguous and was capable of only one meaning and, therefore, the provision must be understood in its literal sense and the High Court was in error in resorting to purposive interpretation of the provision. In support of the submission he relied upon decisions of this Court in Dental Council of India v. Hari Prakash and Ors. MANU/SC/0509/2001 : (2001) 8 SCC 61 and Nathi Devi v. Radha Devi MANU/SC/1071/2004 : (2005) 2 SCC 271. Mr. Siddharth Bhatnagar, learned Counsel for the appellant in the appeal arising from SLP (Crl.) No. 1106/2007 also joined Mr. Ranjit Kumar in the submission based on literal interpretation. He also submitted that ordinarily the rule of literal construction should not be departed from, particularly when the words of the statute are clear and unambiguous. He relied upon the decision in Raghunath Rai Bareja v. Punjab National Bank MANU/SC/5456/2006 : (2007) 2 SCC 230.
22. We are completely unable to appreciate the submission. The plea for a literal interpretation of Section 145(2) is based on the unfounded assumption that the language of the section clearly says that the person giving his evidence on affidavit, on being summoned at the instance of the accused must start his deposition in court with examination-in-chief. We find nothing in Section 145(2) to suggest that. We may also make it clear that Section 137 of the Evidence Act does not define "examine" to mean and include the three kinds of examination of a witness; it simply defines "examination-in- chief", "cross-examination" and "re-examination". What Section 145(2) of the Act says is simply this. The court may, at its discretion, call a person giving his evidence on affidavit and examine him as to the facts contained therein. But if an application is made either by the prosecution or by the accused the court must call the person giving his evidence on affidavit, again to be examined as to the facts contained therein. What would be the extent and nature of examination in each case is a different matter and that has to be reasonably construed in light of the provision of Section 145(1) and having regard to the object and purpose of the entire scheme of Sections 143 to 146. The scheme of Sections 143 to 146 does not in any way affect the judge's powers under Section 165 of the Evidence Act. As a matter of fact, Section 145(2) expressly provides that the court may, if it thinks fit, summon and examine any person giving evidence on affidavit. But how would the person giving evidence on affidavit be examined, on being summoned to appear before the court on the application made by the prosecution or the accused? The affidavit of the person so summoned that is already on the record is obviously in the nature of examination-in-chief. Hence, on being summoned on the application made by the accused the deponent of the affidavit (the complainant or any of his witnesses) can only be subjected to cross-examination as to the facts stated in the affidavit. In so far as the prosecution is concerned the occasion to summon any of its witnesses who has given his evidence on affidavit may arise in two ways. The prosecution may summon a person who has given his evidence on affidavit and has been cross-examined for "re-examination". The prosecution may also have to summon a witness whose evidence is given on affidavit in case objection is raised by the defence regarding the validity and/or sufficiency of proof of some document(s) submitted along with the affidavit. In that event the witness may be summoned to appear before the court to cure the defect and to have the document(s) properly proved by following the correct legal mode. This appears to us as the simple answer to the above question and the correct legal position. Any other meaning given to Sub-section (2) of Section 145, as suggested by Mr. Ranjit Kumar would make the provision of Section 145(1) nugatory and would completely defeat the very scheme of trial as designed under Sections 143 to 147.
23. Mr. Ranjit Kumar next submitted that Section 145(2) was identical to Section 296(2) of the Code of Criminal Procedure and this Court, in its decision in State of Punjab v. Naib Din MANU/SC/0597/2001 : (2001) 8 SCC 578 dealing with Section 296(2) of the Code made the following observation:
8. ...If any party to a lis wishes to examine the deponent of the affidavit it is open to him to make an application before the court that he requires the deponent to be examined or cross- examined in court. This is provided in Sub-section (2) of Section 296 of the Code. When any such application is made it is the duty of the court to call such person to the court for the purpose of being examined.
24. Mr. Siddharth Bhatnagar representing the appellant in the appeal arising from SLP (Crl.) No. 1106/2007 also joined Mr. Ranjit Kumar in the submission based on Section 296(2) of Code. Mr. Bhatnagar submitted that since Section 145(2) is identical to Section 296(2) of the Code, it should be interpreted in light of the legislative history of Section 296(2) and he tried to take us into the details of the legislative history of Section 296 of the Code.
25. In our view the submission is wholly without merit. Neither section 296(2) of the Code nor the decision in Naib Din has any relevance or application to the trial concerning a dishonoured cheque under sections 143 to 146 of the Act. The decision in Naib Din was rendered in a totally different context and the issue before the court was not, whether on being summoned on the application made by the accused, the person giving evidence on affidavit must begin his deposition with examination-in-chief. The appellants are reading into the passage from the decision in Naib Din something that was not said by the court. Moreover, the crucial difference between section 296(2) of the Code and section 145(2) of the Act is that the former deals with the evidence of a formal nature whereas under the latter provision, all evidences including substantive evidence may be given on affidavit. Section 296 is part of the elaborate procedure of a regular trial under the Code while the whole object of section 145(2) of the Act is to design a much simpler and swifter trial procedure departing from the elaborate and time consuming trial procedure of the Code. Hence, notwithstanding the apparent verbal similarity between section 145(2) of the Act and section 296(2) of the Code, it would be completely wrong to interpret the true scope and meaning of the one in the light of the other. Neither the legislative history of 296(2) nor any decision on that section can persuade us to hold that under section 145(2) of the Act, on being summoned at the instance of the accused the complainant or any of his witnesses should be first made to depose in examination-in-chief before cross-examination.
26. Mr. Ranjit Kumar next submitted that in giving evidence on affidavit, the deponent (the complainant or any of his witnesses) can introduce hearsay or irrelevant facts in evidence to which the accused could have objected if the deposition was made in court as examination-in-chief. Hence, the accused must have the right to call the complainant (or his witness giving evidence on affidavit) into the witness box for examination-in-chief so as to get the inadmissible parts in the affidavit excluded from his evidence. Once again the submission is devoid of merit. It is noted above that the evidence given on affidavit by the complainant is "subject to all just exceptions". This simply means that the evidence given on affidavit must be admissible and it must not include inadmissible materials such as facts not relevant to the issue or any hearsay statements. In case the complainant's affidavits contain statements that are not admissible in evidence it is always open to the accused to point those out to the court and the court would then surely deal with the objections in accordance with law.
27. Mr. Ranjit Kumar lastly submitted that when the complainant gives his evidence on affidavit, then the documents produced along with the affidavit(s) are not proved automatically and unless the accused admits those documents under section 294 of the Code of Criminal Procedure the documents must be proved by oral testimony. We find no substance in this submission either and we see no reason why the affidavits should not also contain the formal proof of the enclosed documents. In case, however, the accused raises any objections with regard to the validity or sufficiency of proof of the documents submitted along with the affidavit and if the objections are sustained by the court it is always open to the prosecution to have the concerned witness summoned and get the lacuna in the proof of the documents corrected.
28. Mr. Ranjit Kumar also made a feeble attempt to contend that the provisions of sections 143 to 147 inserted in the Act with effect from February 6, 2003 would operate prospectively and would not apply to cases that were pending on that date. The High Court has considered the issue in great detail and has rightly taken the view that the provisions of sections 143 to 147 do not take away any substantive rights of the accused. Those provisions are not substantive but procedural in nature and would, therefore, undoubtedly, apply to the cases that were pending on the date the provisions came into force. We are fully in agreement and in order to buttress the view taken by the High Court we will only refer to a decision of this court.
29. In Gurbachan Singh vs. Satpal Singh and Ors., 1990 (1) SCC 445, the court was called upon to consider whether section 113A of the Evidence Act that created a presumption as to abetment of a suicide by a married woman would operate retrospectively or prospectively. The court held:
"37. The provisions of the said section do not create any new offence and as such it does not create any substantial right but it is merely a matter of procedure of evidence and as such it is retrospective and will be applicable to this case. It is profitable to refer in this connection to Halsbury's Laws of England, Fourth Edition, Volume 44 page 570 wherein it has been stated that:
"The general rule is that all statutes, other than those which are merely declaratory or which relate only to matters of procedure or of evidence, are prima facie prospective, and retrospective effect is not to be given to them unless, by express words or necessary implications, it appears that this was the intention of the legislature..."
38. It has also been stated in the said volume of Halsbury's Laws of England at page 574 that:
"The presumption against retrospection does not apply to legislation concerned merely with matters of procedure or of evidence; on the contrary, provisions of that nature are to be construed as retrospective unless there is a clear indication that such was not the intention of Parliament.""
(emphasis added) 30. Coming now to the last question with regard to the right of the accused to give his evidence, like the complainant, on affidavit, the High Court has held that subject to the provisions of sections 315 and 316 of the Code of Criminal Procedure the accused can also give his evidence on affidavit. The High Court was fully conscious that section 145(1) does not provide for the accused to give his evidence, like the complainant, on affidavit. But the High Court argued that there was no express bar in law against the accused giving his evidence on affidavit and more importantly providing a similar right to the accused would be in furtherance of the legislative intent to make the trial process swifter. In paragraph 29 of the judgment, the High Court observed as follows:
"It is true that section 145(1) confers a right on the complainant to give evidence on affidavit. It does not speak of similar right being conferred on the accused. The Legislature in their wisdom may not have thought it proper to incorporate a word `accused' with the word `complainant' in sub-section (1) of section 145 in view of the immunity conferred on the accused from being compelled to be a witness against himself under Article 20(3) of the Constitution of India...."
Then in paragraph 31 of the judgment it observed:
".... Merely because, section 145(1) does not expressly permit the accused to do so, does not mean that the Magistrate cannot allow the accused to give his evidence on affidavit by applying the same analogy unless there is just and reasonable ground to refuse such permission. There is no express bar on the accused to give evidence on affidavit either in the Act or in the Code..... I find no justified reason to refuse permission to the accused to give his evidence on affidavit subject to the provisions contained in sections 315 and 316 of the Code."
31. On this issue, we are afraid that the High Court overreached itself and took a course that amounts to taking-over the legislative functions.
32. On a bare reading of section 143 it is clear that the legislature provided for the complainant to give his evidence on affidavit and did not provide for the accused to similarly do so. But the High Court thought that not mentioning the accused along with the complainant in sub-section (1) of section 145 was merely an omission by the legislature that it could fill up without difficulty. Even though the legislature in their wisdom did not deem it proper to incorporate the word `accused' with the word `complainant' in section 145(1), it did not mean that the Magistrate could not allow the accused to give his evidence on affidavit by applying the same analogy unless there was a just and reasonable ground to refuse such permission. There are two errors apparent in the reasoning of the High Court. First, if the legislature in their wisdom did not think "it proper to incorporate a word `accused' with the word `complainant' in section 145(1)......", it was not open to the High Court to fill up the self perceived blank. Secondly, the High Court was in error in drawing an analogy between the evidences of the complainant and the accused in a case of dishonoured cheque. The case of the complainant in a complaint under section 138 of the Act would be based largely on documentary evidence. The accused, on the other hand, in a large number of cases, may not lead any evidence at all and let the prosecution stand or fall on its own evidence. In case the defence does lead any evidence, the nature of its evidence may not be necessarily documentary; in all likelihood the defence would lead other kinds of evidences to rebut the presumption that the issuance of the cheque was not in the discharge of any debt or liability. This is the basic difference between the nature of the complainant's evidence and the evidence of the accused in a case of dishonoured cheque. It is, therefore, wrong to equate the defence evidence with the complainant's evidence and to extend the same option to the accused as well.
33. Coming back to the fist error in the High Court's reasoning, in the guise of interpretation it is not permissible for the court to make additions in the law and to read into it something that is just not there. In Union of India and Anr. vs. Deoki Nandan Aggarwal, 1992 Supp. (1) SCC 323, this court sounded the note of caution against the court usurping the role of legislator in the guise of interpretation. The court observed:
"14. ...it is not the duty of the court either to enlarge the scope of the legislation or the intention of the legislature when the language of the provision is plain and unambiguous. The court cannot rewrite, recast or reframe the legislation for the very good reason that it has no power to legislate. The power to legislate has not been conferred on the courts. The court cannot add words to a statute or read words into it which are not there. Assuming there is a defect or an omission in the words used by the legislature the court could not go to its aid to correct or make up the deficiency. Courts shall decide what the law is and not what it should be. The court of course adopts a construction which will carry out the obvious intention of the legislature but could not legislate itself. But to invoke judicial activism to set at naught the legislative judgment is subversive of the constitutional harmony and comity of instrumentalities...."
34. In Raghunath Rai Bareja and Anr. vs. Punjab National Bank and Ors., (2007) 2 SCC 230 while observing that it is the task of the elected representatives of the people to legislate and not that of the Judge even if it results in hardship or inconvenience, Supreme Court quoted in affirmation, the observation of Justice Frankfurter of the US Supreme Court which is as follows:
"41. As stated by Justice Frankfurter of the US Supreme Court (see "Of Law and Men: Papers and addresses of Felix Frankfurter")
"Even within their area of choice the courts are not at large. They are confined by the nature and scope of the judicial function in its particular exercise in the field of interpretation. They are under the constraints imposed by the judicial function in our democratic society. As a matter of verbal recognition certainly, no one will gainsay that the function in construing a statute is to ascertain the meaning of words used by the legislator. To go beyond it is to usurp a power which our democracy has lodged in its elected legislature. The great judges have constantly admonished there bretheren of the need for discipline in observing the limitations. A judge must not rewrite a statute, neither to enlarge nor to contract it. Whatever temptations the statesmanship of policy- making might wisely suggest, construction must eschew interpolation and evisceration. He must not read in by way of creation. He must not read out except to avoid patent nonsense or internal contradiction."
35. In Duport Steels Ltd. vs. Sirs,  1 All ER 529, 534, Lord Scarman expounded the legal position in the following words:
"But in the field of statute law the judge must be obedient to the will of Parliament as expressed in its enactments. In this field Parliament makes and unmakes the law. The judge's duty is to interpret and to apply the law not to change it to meet the judge's idea of what justice requires. Interpretation does, of course, imply in the interpreter a power of choice where differing construction are possible. But our law require the judge to choose the construction which in his judgment best meets the legislative purpose of the enactment. If the result be unjust but inevitable, the judge may say so and invite Parliament to reconsider its provision. But he must not deny the statute."