In a judgment with far-reaching effect on numerous cases pending under the Prevention of Corruption Act, the Supreme Court has held that a public servant cannot by default claim legal protection of prior sanction against prosecution.
Under Section 197 of the Criminal Procedure Code (Cr.PC), no court should take cognisance of criminal charges against a public servant unless previous sanction to prosecute him is received from a competent authority. This safeguard is meant to help government servants perform their duties honestly without fear of malicious prosecution. However, the provision has largely become a ruse to delay prosecution in corruption cases.
Dealing with such a case, which has been hanging fire since 1999, a Bench of Justices Kurian Joseph and A.K. Goel said protection under Section 197 of CrPC was only available to a public servant for the honest discharge of his duty. Prosecution for corruption should be exemplary and without delay, the apex court observed.
Besides, this protection cannot be claimed immediately after a complaint is lodged. The question of prior sanction would be considered later, during stages in the criminal trial, as and when the need arises, the apex court observed.
“Public servants have, in fact, been treated as special category under Section 197 of CrPC to protect them from malicious or vexatious prosecution. Such protection from harassment is given in public interest; the same cannot be treated as a shield to protect corrupt officials,” Justice Joseph, who authored the judgment, observed.
The court noted that procedural provisions relating to sanction must be construed in such a manner as to advance the causes of honesty and justice and good governance as opposed to escalation of corruption.
Citing a 2015 Supreme Court precedent, Justice Joseph wrote: “The question relating to the need of sanction under Section 197 of the code is not necessarily to be considered as soon as the complaint is lodged and on the allegations contained therein. This question may arise at any stage of the proceeding. The question whether sanction is necessary or not may have to be determined from stage to stage.”
The judgment came in a clutch of criminal appeals filed by the Andhra Pradesh police in 2013 against a High Court order quashing criminal proceedings against two revenue officials who successfully claimed protection under Section 197 of CrPC.
The duo figured among 41 people, including revenue officials, stamp vendors and document writers, against whom the police registered an FIR in 1999 for allegedly manipulating registers and undervaluing property, causing loss to the government.
Setting aside the High Court order to quash the criminal proceedings against them, Justice Joseph, for the Bench, held that the trial should be completed expeditiously before December 31 this year.