The Law Commission of India, in Report No. 282, recommended that “in cases where the accused is not known, registration of an e-FIR should be allowed for all cognisable offences”. If the accused is known, as a preliminary step, registration of an e-FIR may be allowed for cognisable offences wherein the punishment provided under the Indian Penal Code (IPC) and other laws is up to three years.
The verification of the complainant, the Commission said, could be done by verifying the mobile number through an OTP and mandating the uploading of valid ID proof such as Aadhaar. It also said that the name of the suspect on the centralised national portal is to be secured until the e-FIR is signed by the complainant. Further, in case the registered information is not signed by the informant deliberately within the prescribed time, the information shall be deleted within two weeks.
The Commission has not demystified the concept of an ‘e-FIR’. The procedure laid down in the Report says that the police station will check the contents of information received from the portal to verify whether a cognisable offence is made out as recommended. Only then will the received information be entered in the prescribed format within three days. In other cases (punishable with more than three years of imprisonment), the conventional method prescribed under the IPC needs to be followed. In the next step, the police officer is required to get the signature of the complainant within three days to register an e-FIR. Otherwise, the e-FIR shall not be registered, reasons shall be communicated, and the said information shall be automatically deleted after two weeks from the portal. The procedure is given only for cases where the accused is known.
Though the Commission mentioned that eight States are lodging an e-FIR, it did not discuss any of the models adopted by those States, particularly the method of obtaining signatures.
It is thus clear that the concept of ‘e-FIR’ is nothing but obtaining information/complaint through electronic means using a common national portal and then getting the information/complaint signed by the complainant physically within three days to convert the complaint into an actual FIR. It is obvious that the ‘e-FIR’ is not an automatically registered FIR using electronic means, including electronic signature of the complainant. The online facility will have only limited efficacy. Also, any investigation done prior to the actual registration of the FIR shall not be an investigation undertaken in the true spirit of the Code of Criminal Procedure.
Still, there are at least two benefits of obtaining complaints electronically. First, the police will have to take cognisance of the complaint as the system will automatically generate receipt. This will ensure almost free registration of crime. Second, they will not be able to change the contents of the complaint.
Human intervention is crucial
While most of the eight States are registering FIRs using the Crime and Criminal Tracking Network and Systems or State portals, mostly in property offences where the accused is unknown, the Law Commission has recommended e-FIR for all cognisable offences where the accused is not known, without discussing other related aspects. For example, the accused may initially be unknown in a case of kidnapping where not only immediate medical examination of the victim may be important, but also timely visit to the scene of crime. In fact, interaction with a police officer is valuable in solving blind crimes. An experienced police officer may extract a lot of information from the complainant or victim, which may help in finding the culprit.
Though the option to approach a police station for reporting any cognisable offence shall always be open, the legally permissible period of three days may give a false impression to a common man that it will not affect his case in that period. The complainant may not understand the nuances of a crime. Therefore, only cases where human interaction can be postponed for a limited period without having an adverse impact on the case may be permitted to be registered electronically.
The Commission has also not discussed using the ‘e-authentication technique or digital signature’ as defined in the Information Technology (IT) Act, 2000, for signing complaints. Under the Act, any information ‘rendered or made available in an electronic form; and accessible so as to be usable for a subsequent reference’ is legally acceptable. Similarly, any electronic record can be authenticated by ‘such electronic signature or electronic authentication technique which is considered reliable...’ Thus, one can imply that in case a paper-based signed complaint is to be replaced by an equivalent document in electronic form, one must affix electronic signature or use e-authentication technique notified by the government in the Second Schedule to the IT Act.
In 2015, ‘e-authentication technique using Aadhaar e-KYC services’ was notified in the Second Schedule as a legally recognised technique. This is widely used by the income tax department to facilitate filing of returns electronically. The law also recognises ‘digital signature’ which uses an asymmetric cryptosystem and hash function. Without affixing digital signature or using e-authentication technique, an electronic record transmitted to the police would legally be considered not more than an unsigned complaint. Therefore, it would be better if the use of e-authentication technique is mandated for the verification of complainant, and an e-FIR is registered immediately.
R.K. Vij is a retired Indian Police Service Officer. Views are personal