In a recent judgement, M/S Iveco Magirus Brandschutztechnik Gmbh vs. Nirmal Kishore Bhartiya & Anr.1, the Supreme Court held that nothing prevents the Magistrate from dismissing a defamation complaint by applying the exceptions under section 499 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860 (“IPC“) even before summoning the accused.
Background and Issue
The Airports Authority of India (“AAI“) floated a tender for supply of Airfield Crash Fire Tenders. Following the rejection of the bid of a Germany based manufacturer, Iveco Magirus Brandschutztechnik Gmbh (“Appellant“) and awarding of the tender to Rosenbauer International AG (“Complainant“), complaints of favoritism and irregularities in the tender process were lodged by Mr. M.C. Aggarwal, the local representative of the Appellant. He issued 4 letters to different authorities including the Minister of Civil Aviation, Government of India, the Chairman of AAI, the Chief Vigilance Officer, AAI, and the Central Vigilance Commissioner, Government of India alleging that the Complainant persuaded the AAI through illegal and wrongful methods, to award the tender to the Complainant. The Complainant lodged the complaint before the Trial Court alleging that the contents of the aforementioned four letters of complaint given to the concerned authorities were defamatory. The Trial Court was of the opinion that a prima facie case was made out against the Appellant and issued summons. This summoning order was challenged by the Appellant under Section 482 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973 (“CrPC“), before the High Court, which was dismissed. The Appellant approached the Apex Court against this order of dismissal.
The Supreme Court inter alia considered in this case whether the Magistrate while considering a private complaint alleging defamation, before summoning the accused ought to confine himself to the allegations forming part of the petition only or he may, applying his judicial mind to the exceptions to section 499 of the IPC, dismiss the complaint holding that the alleged facts do not make out a case of defamation.
The Appellant contended that the High Court erred in not considering that a writ petition instituted on behalf of the Appellant cannot constitute an ingredient of an offence under section 499 of the IPC, since the documents filed in civil cases are protected by an “absolute privilege” and are also covered under the fourth exception to Section 499 of the IPC, which states that “It is not defamation to publish a substantially true report of the proceedings of a Court of Justice, or of the result of any such proceedings.” It was submitted that there has been a gross failure of justice and the High Court ought to have corrected the manifest error committed by the Trial Court in issuing process against the Appellant without the Trial Court considering whether any of the exceptions to section 499 of the IPC was applicable on facts and in the circumstances of the present case.
The Supreme Court observed that there are several decisions where the Apex Court has consistently laid down that it is for the Magistrate to consider the exceptions to section 499 of the IPC for extension of benefit thereof at the trial when a defence is pleaded by the party seeking to avail the same and upon the burden of proof being discharged by him. Such Magistrate while deciding the question purely from the point of view of the complainant may not advert to the possible defence of the accused at the time of exercising power under section 202 of the CrPC. However, there is another line of decisions on the premise that there is no bar in considering the exceptions if the accused, even without appearing before the Magistrate in response to the summoning order, lays a challenge thereto under section 482 of the CrPC and satisfies the relevant High Court, by referring to the complaint itself and the statements of the complainant and his witness, that the facts alleged (even if deemed to be true) do not constitute an offence.
It was discussed by the Court that Section 200 of the CrPC ordains what a Magistrate, inter alia, is required to do on receipt of a complaint: (i) examine upon oath the complainant and the witness present, if any; (ii) reduce in writing the substance of such examination; (iii) get the signature of the complainant and the witness, if any, on such writing; and (iv) sign the same too. Section 202 of the CrPC enables the Magistrate to postpone the issue of process against the accused and, if he thinks fit, either: (a) inquire into the case himself; or (b) direct an investigation to be made by a police officer or by such other person he thinks fit. Section 203 of the CrPC authorizes the Magistrate, after considering the statements on oath of the complainant and the witness, if any, under Section 200 or the result of the inquiry or the investigation under section 202, to dismiss a complaint, with brief reasons, should in his judgment there be no ‘sufficient ground for proceeding’. On the other hand, Section 204 of the CrPC envisages that the Magistrate taking cognizance shall take steps for the issue of necessary process, if in his opinion, there is ‘sufficient ground for proceeding’.
Therefore, it was observed that when a Magistrate taking cognisance of an offence proceeds under Section 200 based on a prima facie satisfaction that a criminal offence is made out, he is required to satisfy himself by looking into the allegations levelled in the complaint, the statements made by the complainant in support of the complaint, the documentary evidence in support of the allegations, if any,
produced by him as well as statements of any witnesses. However, at the stage the Magistrate decides to pass an order summoning the accused, examination of the nature referred to above ought not to be intended for forming an opinion as to whether the materials are sufficient for a ‘conviction’, instead, he is required to form an opinion whether the materials are sufficient for ‘proceeding’. Since the accused does not enter the arena at that stage, question of the accused raising a defence to thwart issuance of process does not arise.
The Supreme Court held that the fact that the accused is not before the Magistrate does not mean that the Magistrate need not apply his judicial mind. Nothing in the applicable law prevents the Magistrate from applying his judicial mind to other provisions of law and to ascertain whether, prima facie, an “offence”, as defined in section 2(n) of the CrPC is made out. Without such opinion being formed, question of “proceeding” as in Section 204 does not arise. It would be the duty of the Magistrate to prevent false and frivolous complaints eating up precious judicial time. If the complaint warrants dismissal, the Magistrate is statutorily mandated to record his brief reasons. On the contrary, if from such materials, a prima facie satisfaction is reached upon application of judicial mind of an “offence” having been committed and there being sufficient ground for proceeding, the Magistrate is under no other fetter from issuing process.
In the context of a complaint of defamation, the Supreme Court held that at the stage the Magistrate proceeds to issue process, he has to form his opinion based on the allegations in the complaint and other material as to whether ‘sufficient ground for proceeding’ exists as distinguished from ‘sufficient ground for conviction’, which has to be left for determination at the trial and not at the stage when process is issued. Although there is nothing in the law which in express terms mandates the Magistrate to consider whether any of the exceptions to Section 499 of the IPC is attracted, there is no bar either. It is not the law that the Magistrate is in any manner precluded from considering if at all any of the exceptions is attracted in a given case, more so because being someone who is legally trained, it is expected that while issuing process he would have a clear idea of what constitutes defamation. If the contents of the complaint and the supporting statements on oath as well as reports of investigation/inquiry reveal a complete defence under any of the exceptions to section 499 of the IPC, the Magistrate, upon due application of judicial mind, would be justified to dismiss the complaint on such ground and it would not amount to an act in excess of jurisdiction if such dismissal has the support of reasons.
1 2023 SCC OnLine SC 1258