In my last column, I spoke of the rights of an accused at the time of arrest. But how about the steps involved in initiating criminal proceedings? Ranjani lived with her grandmother. One evening, returning from work, she found her grandmother injured and frightened. Two men had rung the bell claiming to be from a courier service, and had barged into the house. They had then robbed her gold chain and diamond earrings. By the time the neighbours heard her screams and came to help, the two escaped in a car parked downstairs. One neighbour managed to grab a hazy photo of the car on his cell phone, with which they could identify the model and number. Ranjani was asked to go the police station and file a complaint.

Like Ranjani, most of us don’t know what to do next in situations like this. The FIR is the first and the most important document to initiate criminal proceedings. Here’s what to remember about FIRs.

Who? An FIR can be lodged by the victim, a witness to the incident, or any person with knowledge of the incident.

Why? An FIR is the document that initiates criminal proceedings to punish the guilty. In case of theft or damage to property, an FIR is necessary to claim insurance or protect yourself from any liability arising from the misuse of your property.

What crimes? The police can register FIRs only for cognizable offences — where the police have the power to arrest without a warrant. Examples of cognizable offences include murder, rape, theft, attack, etc. For non-cognizable offences, such as bigamy or defamation, the police cannot arrest without a warrant and thus cannot register an FIR. The complaint is sent to the Judicial Magistrate for action.

When? The FIR has to be registered at the earliest point of time after the incident. Any delay in registration has to be adequately explained. Delay in registration may cause a suspicion as to whether it was an afterthought or a concocted version.

Where? Ideally, the FIR should be registered in the police station within whose geographical limits the crime took place. But in case of an emergency, there is no bar on any other police station registering the FIR and then transferring the investigation to the correct station. Also, it is not always necessary to go in person to register the FIR. In an emergency, the police can register an FIR based on a phone call or e-mail.

How? The FIR should mention the date and time of the incident and the identity of the accused (if known) in a precise manner. After it is registered, the complainant is entitled to a copy free of charge. The Crime Number in the FIR is the reference for all future follow-ups.

As for the police, once the FIR is registered, they have to investigate the case, record statements of all witnesses, and file a final report. If the police conclude that there is no basis for the complaint or no evidence available to prosecute the case, further action is dropped. This has to be communicated to the complainant. If there is enough evidence, the final charge sheet is submitted before Court and the trial begins.

If the police refuse to register an FIR, a written complaint can be sent to the Superintendent of Police. A complaint may also be given directly to the Judicial Magistrate, who can direct the police to investigate the case.

The writer is a practising advocate in Chennai with keen interest in legal literacy and in making the law less intimidating to the common man. And woman. This column is legal information, not advice. Please consult a lawyer for specific cases. She can be contacted at poongkhulali.b@gmail.com.

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