Friday, May 7, 2010

DAMODAR S. PRABHU Versus SAYED BABALAL H.

(A) Negotiable Instruments Act, 1881 — Sections 138/147 — compounding of the offence — the parties were involved in commercial transactions — dispute arose on account of the dishonour of five cheques issued by the appellant — with regard to the impugned judgement delivered by the High Court, the appellant prayed for the setting aside of his conviction by relying on the consent terms that have been arrived at between the parties — this Court allowed the compounding of the offence and set aside the appellant's conviction. 
(B) Practice & Procedure - Negotiable Instruments Act, 1881, ss. 138, 142 and 147 - Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973, s. 320 - Compounding of offences under the Act - Dishonour of cheques - With regard to the progression of litigation in cheque bouncing cases, Attorney General urged SC to frame guidelines for a graded scheme of imposing costs on parties who unduly delay compounding of the offence - It was submitted that application for compounding made after several years not only results in the system being burdened but the complainant is also deprived of effective justice - Held, s. 147 of the Act does not carry any guidance on how to proceed with the compounding of offences under the Act - Even, scheme contemplated u/s. 320 of the CrPC cannot be followed in the strict sense - Therefore, in view of the legislative vacuum, there is no hurdle to the endorsement of some suggestions which have been designed to discourage litigants from unduly delaying the composition of the offence in cases involving s. 138 of the Act - Further, graded scheme for imposing costs is a means to encourage compounding at an early stage of litigation - Guidelines framed - Appeals disposed of.

(C) Criminal - Practice & Procedure - Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973, s. 200 - Filing of multiple complaints relatable to the same transaction - Submitted that complaints are being increasingly filed in multiple jurisdictions in a vexatious manner which causes tremendous harassment and prejudice to the drawers of the cheque - Held, directed that it should be mandatory for the complainant to disclose that no other complaint has been filed in any other court in respect of the same transaction - Such a disclosure should be made on a sworn affidavit which should accompany the complaint filed u/s. 200 of the CrPC - If it is found that such multiple complaints have been filed, orders for transfer of the complaint to the first court should be given, generally speaking, by the HC after imposing heavy costs on the complainant for resorting to such a practice - Directions should be given effect prospectively

Supreme Court of India

CRIMINAL APPEAL NO. 963 of 2010

Judge(s): K.G. BALAKRISHNAN, P. SATHASIVAM,J.M. PANCHAL

Date of Judgment: Monday, May 03, 2010

DAMODAR S. PRABHU  Versus SAYED BABALAL H.


O R D E R

1. Leave granted.

2. The present appeals are in respect of litigation involving the offence enumerated by Section 138 of the Negotiable Instruments Act, 1881 [Hereinafter `Act']. It is not necessary for us to delve into the facts leading up to the institution of proceedings before this Court since the appellant and the respondent have arrived at a settlement and prayed for the compounding of the offence as contemplated by Section 147 of the Act. It would suffice to say that the parties were involved in commercial transactions and that disputes had arisen on account of the dishonour of five cheques issued by the appellant. Thereafter, the parties went through the several stages of litigation before their dispute reached this Court by way of special leave petitions. With regard to the impugned judgments delivered by the High Court of Bombay at Goa, the appellant has prayed for the setting aside of his conviction in these matters by relying on the consent terms that have been arrived at between the parties. The respondent has not opposed this plea and, therefore, we allow the compounding of the offence and set aside the appellant's conviction in each of the impugned judgments.

3. However, there are some larger issues which can be appropriately addressed in the context of the present case. It may be recalled that Chapter XVII comprising sections 138 to 142 was inserted into the Act by the Banking, Public Financial Institutions and Negotiable Instruments Laws (Amendment) Act, 1988 (66 of 1988). The object of bringing Section 138 into the statute was to inculcate faith in the efficacy of banking operations and credibility in transacting business on negotiable instruments. It was to enhance the acceptability of cheques in settlement of liabilities by making the drawer liable for penalties in case of bouncing of cheques due to insufficient arrangements made by the drawer, with adequate safeguards to prevent harassment of honest drawers. If the cheque is dishonoured for insufficiency of funds in the drawer's account or if it exceeds the amount arranged to be paid from that account, the drawer is to be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to two years, or with fine which may extend to twice the amount of the cheque, or with both. It may be noted that when the offence was inserted in the statute in 1988, it carried the provision for imprisonment up to one year, which was revised to two years following the amendment to the Act in 2002. It is quite evident that the legislative intent was to provide a strong criminal remedy in order to deter the worryingly high incidence of dishonour of cheques. While the possibility of imprisonment up to two years provides a remedy of a punitive nature, the provision for imposing a `fine which may extent to twice the amount of the cheque' serves a compensatory purpose. What must be remembered is that the dishonour of a cheque can be best described as a regulatory offence that has been created to serve the public interest in ensuring the reliability of these instruments. The impact of this offence is usually confined to the private parties involved in commercial transactions.

4. Invariably, the provision of a strong criminal remedy has encouraged the institution of a large number of cases that are relatable to the offence contemplated by Section 138 of the Act. So much so, that at present a disproportionately large number of cases involving the dishonour of cheques is choking our criminal justice system, especially at the level of Magistrates' Courts. As per the 213th Report of the Law Commission of India, more than 38 lakh cheque bouncing cases were pending before various courts in the country as of October 2008. This is putting an unprecedented strain on our judicial system.

5. Mr. Goolam E. Vahanvati, Solicitor General (now Attorney- General for India) had appeared as amicus curiae in the present matter and referred to the facts herein as an illustration of how parties involved in cheque bounce cases usually seek the compounding of the offence at a very late stage. The interests of justice would indeed be better served if parties resorted to compounding as a method to resolve their disputes at an early stage instead of engaging in protracted litigation before several forums, thereby causing undue delay, expenditure and strain on part of the judicial system. This is clearly a situation that is causing some concern, since Section 147 of the Act does not prescribe as to what stage is appropriate for compounding the offence and whether the same can be done at the instance of the complainant or with the leave of the court. The learned Attorney General stressed on the importance of using compounding as an expedient method to hasten the disposal of cases. In this regard, the learned Attorney General has proposed that this Court should frame some guidelines to disincentivise litigants from seeking the compounding of the offence at an unduly late stage of litigation. In other words, judicial directions have been sought to nudge litigants in cheque bounce cases to opt for compounding during the early stages of litigation, thereby bringing down the arrears.

6. Before examining the guidelines proposed by the learned Attorney General, it would be useful to clarify the position relating to the compounding of offences under the Negotiable Instruments Act, 1881. Even before the insertion of Section 147 in the Act (by way of an amendment in 2002) some High Courts had permitted the compounding of the offence contemplated by Section 138 during the later stages of litigation. In fact in O.P. Dholakia v. State of Haryana, (2000) 1 SCC 672, a division bench of this Court had permitted the compounding of the offence even though the petitioner's conviction had been upheld by all the three designated forums. After noting that the petitioner had already entered into a compromise with the complainant, the bench had rejected the State's argument that this Court need not interfere with the conviction and sentence since it was open to the parties to enter into a compromise at an earlier stage and that they had not done so. The bench had observed:-

"... Taking into consideration the nature of the offence in question and the fact that the complainant and the accused have already entered into a compromise, we think it appropriate to grant permission in the peculiar facts and circumstances of the present case, to compound."

7. Similar reliefs were granted in orders reported as Sivasankaran v. State of Kerala & Anr., (2002) 8 SCC 164, Kishore Kumar v. J.K. Corporation Ltd., (2004) 12 SCC 494 and Sailesh Shyam Parsekar v. Baban, (2005) 4 SCC 162, among other cases. As mentioned above, the Negotiable Instruments Act, 1881 was amended by the Negotiable Instruments (Amendment and Miscellaneous Provisions) Act, 2002 which inserted a specific provision, i.e. Section 147 `to make the offences under the Act compoundable'. We can refer to the following extract from the Statement of Objects and Reasons attached to the 2002 amendment which is self- explanatory:-

"Prefatory Note - Statement of Objects and Reasons. - The Negotiable Instruments Act, 1881 was amended by the Banking, Public Financial Institutions and Negotiable Instruments Laws (Amendment) Act, 1988 wherein a new Chapter XVII was incorporated for penalties in case of dishonour of cheques due to insufficiency of funds in the account of the drawer of the cheque. These provisions were incorporated with a view to encourage the culture of use of cheques and enhancing the credibility of the instrument. The existing provisions in the Negotiable Instruments Act, 1881, namely, Sections 138 to 142 in Chapter XVII have been found deficient in dealing with dishonour of cheques. Not only the punishment provided in the Act has proved to be inadequate, the procedure prescribed for the courts to deal with such matters has been found to be cumbersome. The courts are unable to dispose of such cases expeditiously in a time bound manner in view of the procedure contained in the Act. ..." (emphasis supplied)

In order to address the deficiencies referred to above, Section 10 of the 2002 amendment inserted Sections 143, 144, 145, 146 and 147 into the Act, which deal with aspects such as the power of the Court to try cases summarily (Section 143), Mode of service of summons (Section 144), Evidence on affidavit (Section 145), Bank's slip to be considered as prima facie evidence of certain facts (Section 146) and Offences under the Act to be compoundable (Section 147). At present, we are of course concerned with Section 147 of the Act, which reads as follows:-

"147. Offences to be compoundable. - Notwithstanding anything contained in the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973 (2 of 1974), every offence punishable under this Act shall be compoundable."

8. At this point, it would be apt to clarify that in view of the non-obstante clause, the compounding of offences under the Negotiable Instruments Act, 1881 is controlled by Section 147 and the scheme contemplated by Section 320 of the Code of Criminal Procedure [Hereinafter `CrPC'] will not be applicable in the strict sense since the latter is meant for the specified offences under the Indian Penal Code. So far as the CrPC is concerned, Section 320 deals with offences which are compoundable, either by the parties without the leave of the court or by the parties but only with the leave of the Court. Sub-section (1) of Section 320 enumerates the offences which are compoundable without the leave of the Court, while sub- section (2) of the said section specifies the offences which are compoundable with the leave of the Court. Section 147 of the Negotiable Instruments Act, 1881 is in the nature of an enabling provision which provides for the compounding of offences prescribed under the same Act, thereby serving as an exception to the general rule incorporated in sub-section (9) of Section 320 of the CrPC which states that `No offence shall be compounded except as provided by this Section'. A bare reading of this provision would lead us to the inference that offences punishable under laws other than the Indian Penal Code also cannot be compounded. However, since Section 147 was inserted by way of an amendment to a special law, the same will override the effect of Section 320(9) of the CrPC, especially keeping in mind that Section 147 carries a non- obstante clause

9. In Vinay Devanna Nayak v. Ryot Sewa Sahakari Bank Ltd., (2008) 2 SCC 305, this Court had examined `whether an offence punishable under Section 138 of the Act which is a special law can be compounded'. After taking note of a divergence of views in past decisions, this Court took the following position (C.K. Thakker, J. at Para. 17):-

" ... This provision is intended to prevent dishonesty on the part of the drawer of negotiable instruments in issuing cheques without sufficient funds or with a view to inducing the payee or holder in due course to act upon it. It thus seeks to promote the efficacy of bank operations and ensures credibility in transacting business through cheques. In such matters, therefore, normally compounding of offences should not be denied. Presumably, Parliament also realised this aspect and inserted Section 147 by the Negotiable Instruments (Amendment and Miscellaneous Provisions) Act, 2002 (Act 55 of 2002). ..."

In the same decision, the court had also noted (Para. 11):-

"... Certain offences are very serious in which compromise or settlement is not permissible. Some other offences, on the other hand, are not so serious and the law may allow the parties to settle them by entering into a compromise. The compounding of an offence signifies that the person against whom an offence has been committed has received some gratification to an act as an inducement for his abstaining from proceeding further with the case."

10. It would also be pertinent to refer to this Court's decision in R. Rajeshwari v. H.N. Jagadish, (2008) 4 SCC 82, wherein the following observations were made (S.B. Sinha, J. at Para. 12):-

"Negotiable Instruments Act is a special Act. Section 147 provides for a non obstante clause, stating:

147. Offences to be compoundable. - Notwithstanding anything contained in the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973 (2 of 1974), every offence punishable under this Act shall be compoundable.

Indisputably, the provisions of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973 would be applicable to the proceedings pending before the courts for trial of offences under the said Act. Stricto sensu, however, the table appended to Section 320 of the Code of Criminal Procedure is not attracted as the provisions mentioned therein refer only to provisions of the Penal Code and none other."

11. The compounding of the offence at later stages of litigation in cheque bouncing cases has also been held to be permissible in a recent decision of this Court, reported as K.M. Ibrahim v. K.P. Mohammed & Anr., 2009 (14) SCALE 262, wherein Kabir, J. has noted (at Paras. 11, 12):-

"11. As far as the non-obstante clause included in Section 147 of the 1881 Act is concerned, the 1881 Act being a special statute, the provisions of Section 147 will have an overriding effect over the provisions of the Code relating to compounding of offences. ...

12. It is true that the application under Section 147 of the Negotiable Instruments Act was made by the parties after the proceedings had been concluded before the Appellate Forum. However, Section 147 of the aforesaid Act does not bar the parties from compounding an offence under Section 138 even at the appellate stage of the proceedings. Accordingly, we find no reason to reject the application under Section 147 of the aforesaid Act even in a proceeding under Article 136 of the Constitution."

12. It is evident that the permissibility of the compounding of an offence is linked to the perceived seriousness of the offence and the nature of the remedy provided. On this point we can refer to the following extracts from an academic commentary [Cited from: K.N.C. Pillai, R.V. Kelkar's Criminal Procedure, 5th edn. (Lucknow: Eastern Book Company, 2008) at p. 444]:-

"A crime is essentially a wrong against the society and the State. Therefore, any compromise between the accused person and the individual victim of the crime should not absolve the accused from criminal responsibility. However, where the offences are essentially of a private nature and relatively not quite serious, the Code considers it expedient to recognize some of them as compoundable offences and some others as compoundable only with the permission of the court. ..."

In a recently published commentary, the following observations have been made with regard to the offence punishable under Section 138 of the Act [Cited from: Arun Mohan, Some thoughts towards law reforms on the topic of Section 138, Negotiable Instruments Act - Tackling an avalanche of cases (New Delhi: Universal Law Publishing Co. Pvt. Ltd., 2009) at p. 5]

"... Unlike that for other forms of crime, the punishment here (in so far as the complainant is concerned) is not a means of seeking retribution, but is more a means to ensure payment of money. The complainant's interest lies primarily in recovering the money rather than seeing the drawer of the cheque in jail. The threat of jail is only a mode to ensure recovery. As against the accused who is willing to undergo a jail term, there is little available as remedy for the holder of the cheque.

If we were to examine the number of complaints filed which were `compromised' or `settled' before the final judgment on one side and the cases which proceeded to judgment and conviction on the other, we will find that the bulk was settled and only a miniscule number continued."

13. It is quite obvious that with respect to the offence of dishonour of cheques, it is the compensatory aspect of the remedy which should be given priority over the punitive aspect. There is also some support for the apprehensions raised by the learned Attorney General that a majority of cheque bounce cases are indeed being compromised or settled by way of compounding, albeit during the later stages of litigation thereby contributing to undue delay in justice- delivery. The problem herein is with the tendency of litigants to belatedly choose compounding as a means to resolve their dispute. Furthermore, the written submissions filed on behalf of the learned Attorney General have stressed on the fact that unlike Section 320 of the CrPC, Section 147 of the Negotiable Instruments Act provides no explicit guidance as to what stage compounding can or cannot be done and whether compounding can be done at the instance of the complainant or with the leave of the court. As mentioned earlier, the learned Attorney General's submission is that in the absence of statutory guidance, parties are choosing compounding as a method of last resort instead of opting for it as soon as the Magistrates take cognizance of the complaints. One explanation for such behaviour could be that the accused persons are willing to take the chance of progressing through the various stages of litigation and then choose the route of settlement only when no other route remains. While such behaviour may be viewed as rational from the viewpoint of litigants, the hard facts are that the undue delay in opting for compounding contributes to the arrears pending before the courts at various levels. If the accused is willing to settle or compromise by way of compounding of the offence at a later stage of litigation, it is generally indicative of some merit in the complainant's case. In such cases it would be desirable if parties choose compounding during the earlier stages of litigation. If however, the accused has a valid defence such as a mistake, forgery or coercion among other grounds, then the matter can be litigated through the specified forums.

14. It may be noted here that Section 143 of the Act makes an offence under Section 138 triable by a Judicial Magistrate First Class (JMFC). After trial, the progression of further legal proceedings would depend on whether there has been a conviction or an acquittal.

7 In the case of conviction, an appeal would lie to the Court of Sessions under Section 374(3)(a) of the CrPC; thereafter a Revision to the High Court under Section 397/401 of the CrPC and finally a petition before the Supreme Court, seeking special leave to appeal under 136 of the Constitution of India. Thus, in case of conviction there will be four levels of litigation.

7 In the case of acquittal by the JMFC, the complainant could appeal to the High Court under Section 378(4) of the CrPC, and thereafter for special leave to appeal to the Supreme Court under Article 136. In such an instance, therefore, there will be three levels of proceedings.

15. With regard to the progression of litigation in cheque bouncing cases, the learned Attorney General has urged this Court to frame guidelines for a graded scheme of imposing costs on parties who unduly delay compounding of the offence. It was submitted that the requirement of deposit of the costs will act as a deterrent for delayed composition, since at present, free and easy compounding of offences at any stage, however belated, gives an incentive to the drawer of the cheque to delay settling the cases for years. An application for compounding made after several years not only results in the system being burdened but the complainant is also deprived of effective justice. In view of this submission, we direct that the following guidelines be followed:-

THE GUIDELINES

(i) In the circumstances, it is proposed as follows: (a) That directions can be given that the Writ of Summons be suitably modified making it clear to the accused that he could make an application for compounding of the offences at the first or second hearing of the case and that if such an application is made, compounding may be allowed by the court without imposing any costs on the accused.

(b) If the accused does not make an application for compounding as aforesaid, then if an application for compounding is made before the Magistrate at a subsequent stage, compounding can be allowed subject to the condition that the accused will be required to pay 10% of the cheque amount to be deposited as a condition for compounding with the Legal Services Authority, or such authority as the Court deems fit.

(c) Similarly, if the application for compounding is made before the Sessions Court or a High Court in revision or appeal, such compounding may be allowed on the condition that the accused pays 15% of the cheque amount by way of costs.

(d) Finally, if the application for compounding is made before the Supreme Court, the figure would increase to 20% of the cheque amount.

Let it also be clarified that any costs imposed in accordance with these guidelines should be deposited with the Legal Services Authority operating at the level of the Court before which compounding takes place. For instance, in case of compounding during the pendency of proceedings before a Magistrate's Court or a Court of Sessions, such costs should be deposited with the District Legal Services Authority.

Likewise, costs imposed in connection with composition before the High Court should be deposited with the State Legal Services Authority and those imposed in connection with composition before the Supreme Court should be deposited with the National Legal Services Authority.

16. We are also in agreement with the Learned Attorney General's suggestions for controlling the filing of multiple complaints that are relatable to the same transaction. It was submitted that complaints are being increasingly filed in multiple jurisdictions in a vexatious manner which causes tremendous harassment and prejudice to the drawers of the cheque. For instance, in the same transaction pertaining to a loan taken on an installment basis to be repaid in equated monthly installments, several cheques are taken which are dated for each monthly installment and upon the dishonor of each of such cheques, different complaints are being filed in different courts which may also have jurisdiction in relation to the complaint. In light of this submission, we direct that it should be mandatory for the complainant to disclose that no other complaint has been filed in any other court in respect of the same transaction. Such a disclosure should be made on a sworn affidavit which should accompany the complaint filed under Section 200 of the CrPC. If it is found that such multiple complaints have been filed, orders for transfer of the complaint to the first court should be given, generally speaking, by the High Court after imposing heavy costs on the complainant for resorting to such a practice. These directions should be given effect prospectively.

17. We are also conscious of the view that the judicial endorsement of the above quoted guidelines could be seen as an act of judicial law-making and therefore an intrusion into the legislative domain. It must be kept in mind that Section 147 of the Act does not carry any guidance on how to proceed with the compounding of offences under the Act. We have already explained that the scheme contemplated under Section 320 of the CrPC cannot be followed in the strict sense.

In view of the legislative vacuum, we see no hurdle to the endorsement of some suggestions which have been designed to discourage litigants from unduly delaying the composition of the offence in cases involving Section 138 of the Act. The graded scheme for imposing costs is a means to encourage compounding at an early stage of litigation. In the status quo, valuable time of the Court is spent on the trial of these cases and the parties are not liable to pay any Court fee since the proceedings are governed by the Code of Criminal Procedure, even though the impact of the offence is largely confined to the private parties. Even though the imposition of costs by the competent court is a matter of discretion, the scale of costs has been suggested in the interest of uniformity. The competent Court can of course reduce the costs with regard to the specific facts and circumstances of a case, while recording reasons in writing for such variance. Bona fide litigants should of course contest the proceedings to their logical end. Even in the past, this Court has used its power to do complete justice under Article 142 of the Constitution to frame guidelines in relation to subject-matter where there was a legislative vacuum.

18. The present set of appeals are disposed of accordingly.

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