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Public prosecution in India

Dr K N Chandrasekharan Pillai, Director, Indian Law Institute, New Delhi

In organized societies, there is a public prosecution system to prosecute offenders who violate societal norms. The system in common law countries differs from that in the continental countries, but in both, this office is a centre of attraction, a power centre. It wields a lot of authority. It is the repository of the public power to initiate and withdraw prosecution. These powers are untrammeled in continental counties, where this office is called procurator. The word .procurator・ is derived from the Latin word .procuro・, which means .I care, secure, protect・. Though the prosecutors in the common law countries do not carry these adulations, it appears the powers exercised by procurators are similarly understood to be available to the prosecutors in common law countries. However, many of the main powers are not available.

In continental countries the procurator is looked upon as the strict eye of the state. He prohibits, punishes and prevents. The defence lawyer is viewed as defender. One of the procurator・s chief functions must be to protect citizens・ legitimate rights and interests with actions, not words, as prescribed by the law. The impression that the procurator is independent and impartial is accepted in the common law countries though in fact in these countries they may not be impartial. Even in the face of statutory provisions to the contrary, their traditional rights like nulle prosequi are accepted. Therefore, generally speaking, it could be said that the prosecution system in common law countries works within the statutory provisions in the context of traditional powers and duties attached to this office in continental countries.

In India, we have a public prosecutor who acts in accordance with the directions of the judge. The control of trial is in the hands of the trial judge. Investigation is the prerogative of the police. The decision to prosecuteXa function attributed to the procurator in continental countriesXis taken in India by the magistrate on the report submitted by the police. Again, the withdrawal of the prosecution can also be done only with the permission of the court. However, it is generally believed that traditional right of nulle prosequi is available to the prosecutor.

Being an officer of the court, the prosecutor is believed to represent the public interest and as such not to seek conviction of a party by hook or crook. The prosecutor is supposed to lead evidence favourable to the accused for the benefit of the court, not conceal it to secure a conviction. It is also believed that in a case of withdrawal of prosecution, if the prosecutor makes an independent decision to withdraw a case then the court should accept this and permit withdrawal under section 321 of the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC).

Section 24 of the CrPC provides for appointment of public prosecutors in the High Courts and the district by the central government or state government. Subsection 3 lays down that for every district, the state government shall appoint a public prosecutor and may also appoint one or more additional public prosecutors for the district. Subsection 4 requires the district magistrate to prepare a panel of names of persons considered fit for such appointment, in consultation with the sessions judge. Subsection 5 contains an embargo against appointment of any person as the public prosecutor or additional public prosecutor in the district by the state government unless his name appears in the panel prepared under subsection 4. Subsection 6 provides for such appointment wherein a state has a local cadre of prosecuting officers, but if no suitable person is available in such cadre, then the appointment has to be made from the panel prepared under subsection 4. Subsection 4 says that a person shall be eligible for such appointment only after he has been in practice as an advocate for not less than seven years. Section 25 deals with the appointment of an assistant public prosecutor in the district for conducting prosecution in the courts of magistrate. In the case of a public prosecutor also known as district government counsel (criminal) there can be no doubt about the statutory element attached to such appointment by virtue of this provision in the CrPC 1973.

In this context, section 321 of the CrPC is also relevant. As already mentioned, it permits withdrawal from prosecution by the public prosecutor or assistant public prosecutor in charge of a case with the consent of the court at any time before the judgment is pronounced. This power of the public prosecutor in charge of case is derived from the statute and must be exercised in the interest of the administration of justice. There can be no doubt that this function of the public prosecutor relates to a public purpose entrusting the officer with the responsibility of so acting only in the interest of administration of justice.

The nature of the powers of the public prosecutor is sometimes doubted. At times, it appears to be executive power. In certain contexts, it may appear to be quasi-judicial. The principle that the Supreme Court laid down in R K Jain・s case (AIR 1980 SC 1510), quoting Shamsher Singh v. State of Punjab [(1974) 2 SCC 831), as regards the meaning and content of executive powers tends to treat the public prosecutor・s office as executive. But the conclusions of some courts create doubt as to its exact nature. To the suggestion that the public prosecutor should be impartial (a judicial quality), the Kerala High Court equated the public prosecutor with any other counsel and responded thus:

Every counsel appearing in a case before the court is expected to be fair and truthful. He must of course, champion the cause of his client as efficiently and effectively as possible, but fairly truthfully. He is not expected to be impartial but only fair and truthful. [Aziz v. State of Kerala (1984) Cri. LJ 1060 (Ker)]

In a subsequent decision, however, the same high court had to distinguish between a public prosecutor and a counsel for the private party thus:

Public prosecutors are really ministers of justice whose job is none other than assisting the state in the administration of justice. They are not representatives of any party. Their job is to assist the court by placing before the court all relevant aspects of the case. They are not there to use the innocents go to the gallows. They are also not there to see the culprits escape conviction. But the pleader engaged by a private person who is a defacto complainant cannot be expected to be so impartial. Not only that, it will be his endeavor to get the conviction even if a conviction may not be possible. [Babu v. State of Kerala (1984) Cri. LJ 499 (Ker) at 502]

Though the office of the public prosecutor seems to have the features of the executive, the judiciary does not appear to treat it so, because it does not approve of the appointment of police officers as public prosecutors. The Punjab & Haryana High Court in Krishan Singh Kundu v. State of Haryana [1989 Cri. LJ 1309 (P&H)] has ruled that the very idea of appointing a police officer to be in charge of a prosecution agency is abhorrent to the letter and spirit of sections 24 and 25 of the Code. In the same vein the ruling from the Supreme Court in SB Sahana v. State of Maharashtra [(1995) SCC (Cri) 787] found that irrespective of the executive or judicial nature of the office of the public prosecutor, it is certain that one expects impartiality and fairness from it in criminal prosecution. The Supreme Court in Mukul Dalal v. Union of India (1988 3 SCC 144) also categorically ruled that the office of the public prosecutor is a public one and the primacy given to the public prosecutor under the scheme of the court has a social purpose. But the malpractice of some public prosecutors has eroded this value and purpose.

In Sunil Kumar Pal v. Phota Sheikh [(1984) 4 SCC 533] the Supreme Court was presented with a peculiar situation. In this case, some miscreants murdered the appellant・s brother and there were virtually no subsequent proceedings against the accused for quite some time. The appellant was not present in India to pursue the case vigorously. When he came to India, he approached the state government to expedite things. Due to his persistence, one lawyer was appointed as a special public prosecutor. He approached the session court judge trying for an adjournment, as he had no records with him. He was granted only a day and he returned the briefs, as he did not have sufficient time to prepare for the case. Then the junior of the public prosecutor in the area was appointed as special public prosecutor for this case. He was also given a day for preparation before the commencement of the trial, in which it was astonishing to find that the nine accused were represented by the public prosecutor of the area! The trial was a farce. Supporters of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) assembled around the court and shouted slogans against the prosecution. Witnesses were intimidated and several did not turn up. Some turned hostile. The accused were acquitted. The appellant・s prayer for leave to appeal was rejected. The Calcutta High Court also rejected his appeal under section 401. Then he approached the Supreme Court with special leave. The court set aside the order of acquittal after making a survey on the administration of the lower court and in paragraph 10 observed thus:

The order passed by the learned additional sessions judge acquitting respondent nos. 1 to 9 obviously suffers from a serious infirmity and we do not think it is possible to sustain it on any view of the matter. There can be little doubt that the trial culminating in the acquittal of respondent nos. 1 to 9 was appallingly unfair so far as the prosecutions is concerned and was heavily loaded in favour of respondent nos. 1 to 9. It is difficult to understand how consistently with ethics of the legal profession and fair play in the administration of justice, the public prosecutor of Nadia could appear on behalf of respondent nos. 1 to 9. The appearance of the public prosecutor, Nadia on behalf of the defence does lent support to the allegation of the appellant that respondent nos. 1 to 9 were supported by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) which was at the material time the ruling party in the State of West Bengal and this would naturally give rise to apprehension in the minds of the witnesses that in giving evidence against respondent nos. 1 to 9, they would be not only incurring the displeasure of the government but would also be fighting against it. Moreover, it cannot be disputed that when the trial was going on and the witnesses were giving evidence, there were a large number of supporters of the Communist Party (Marxist) who were allowed to assemble in the court compound and who created a hostile atmosphere by shouting against the prosecution and in favour of the accused. Though the appellant and the complainant as also the witnesses were intimated, no steps were taken for according protection to them so that they may be able to give evidence truly and fearlessly in proper atmosphere consistent with the sanctity of the court. It is significant to note that quite a few witnesses turned hostile and that obviously must have been due to the fact that they apprehended danger to their life at the hands of respondent nos. 1 to 9 and their supporters. It is also regrettable that though at the time when the trial commenced on 22nd May, 1978, Shri S. N. Ganguly, who was appointed special public prosecutor to conduct the prosecution, asked for an adjournment of the trial in order to enable him to prepare the case particularly since he was appointed on 20th May, 1978, the trial was adjourned only for one day, with the result that S. N. Ganguly had to return the relief. Then late in the evening of 22nd May 1978 Shri S. S. Sen, additional public prosecutor was asked to conduct the prosecution and he had to begin the case on the very next morning on 23rd May 1971 without practically any time for effective preparation. We have no doubt that under these circumstances the trial was heavily loaded in favour of respondent nos. 1 to 9. The trial must in the circumstances be held to be vitiated and the acquittal of respondent nos. 1 to 9 as a result of such trial must be set aside. It is imperative that in order that people may not loose faith in the administration of criminal justice, no one should be allowed to subvert the legal process. No citizen should go away with the feeling that he could not get justice from the court because the other side was socially, economically or politically powerful and could manipulate the legal process. That would be subversive of the rule of law.

This decision reflects on the poor administration of criminal justice in India. A partisan government may cause a breakdown of the constitutional order. It also shows that unless the state has an independent prosecution agency, the administration of justice might suffer irreparably.

It has been the consistent policy of the appellate courts that it is the prerogative of the public prosecutor to recommend withdrawal of prosecution. Indeed, this prerogative right is to be exercised with the permission of the court. And it is the impression, having regard to the case law, that if the public prosecutor comes up with the proposal of withdrawal independently, i.e., without being influenced by the government, the court may grant permission. The courts reiterate this principle time and again, even in cases where permission is refused. In State of Punjab v. Union of India [1987 Cri. L.J 151 (SC)], the Punjab & Haryana High Court ruled that public prosecutor・s withdrawal from prosecution could follow not only from the paucity of evidence but also in order to further the broad ends of public justice, which may include appropriate social, economic and political purposes. In R K Jain v. State (AIR 1980 SC 1510), the Supreme Court sketched out the contours of the public prosecutor・s power for withdrawal of cases. In Shonandan Paswan v. State of Bihar [(1987) 1 SCC 288] and in Mohd. Mumtaz v. Nandini Satpathy [1987 Cri. L.J. 778 (SC)], the Supreme Court ruled that the public prosecutor can withdraw a prosecution at any stage and that the only limitation is the requirement of the consent of the court. Even when reliable evidence has been adduced to prove the charges, the public prosecutor can seek the consent of court to withdraw prosecution. The court specifically ruled that it should be seen whether application for withdrawal is made in good faith, in the interests of public policy and justice and not to thwart or to stifle the process of law.

The Madras High Court was confronted with a case wherein the same office of the public prosecutor that had a criminal case withdrawn with permission of the court after a change of government moved the court to reopen prosecution. Fortunately, the judge did not permit it, and added a sad commentary on the functioning of the public prosecutor thus:

I feel that the same office of the public prosecutor which acted for the state to withdraw the cases, cannot come forward to set aside the order permitting to withdraw the cases, irrespective of the change in the ruling party as it will lead to uncertainty as to the finality of the proceedings when the government, ruled by a particular party, withdraws the prosecution and the successive governments, ruled by another party, wanted to set aside that order, what will be the situation, if there were successive changes in the ruling parties and if this request is allowed, certainly it will be a havoc and prejudice to the accused persons, without knowing the destination of the prosecution apart from the embarrassment to the public prosecutors. Therefore, I also feel that the state which moved for withdrawing the prosecution cannot seek to set aside the order of permission granting withdrawal of the prosecution. If a third party comes forward with such a prayer the position may be different. [State of TN v. Ganesan, 1995 Cri. L.J 3849 (Mad) at 3851]

The Supreme Court in a later case viz. V. S. Atchulthanandan v. R. Balakrishna Pillai [(1994) 4 SCC 299] allowed the petition of a third party to annul the High Court・s order permitting withdrawal of prosecution against the respondent. It was with the active support of the state government that the prosecution against the respondent, a former minister, was permitted to be withdrawn. The opposition leader challenged this order in the Supreme Court. The court accepted his plea and set aside the order.

Of late, there has been a change of approach to public prosecution. With the advent of partisan politics, political parties tend to interfere with administration of justice, including appointment of public prosecutors and determination of their functions. The decisions in Sunil Kumar Pal, Ganesan and Atchulthanandan speak to the changes and the responses of the judiciary.

It seems that the office of the public prosecutor belongs to the executive. However, it is strongly felt that it is in fact not purely of the executive. As explained by the Supreme Court in the Shamsher Singh, it takes on judicial character and as such assumes a lot of importance in a democracy. The very establishment of this office presupposes the understanding that we cannot afford to permit private prosecution as it may result in utter chaos, particularly in the present political set up. However, while we adopt this office in the place of private prosecution, we cannot forget the interests of the victim. The public prosecutor may not share the concerns of the victim, or safeguard the victim・s interests. The Indian CrPC therefore permits pleaders appointed by private persons to represent the interests of victims. However, the courts insist that they should work under the directions of the public prosecutor. This shows that the court gives more importance to the public interest.
The public prosecutor in India does not seem to be an advocate of the state in the sense that the prosecutor has to seek conviction at any cost. The prosecutor has to be impartial, fair and truthful, not only as a public executive but also because the prosecutor belongs to the honourable profession of law, the ethics of which demand these qualities. The facts in Sunil Kumar Pal and Ganesan make us to open our eyes to the realities.

The difficulties arising where public prosecutors are appointed on the basis of political affiliations also came before the Supreme Court in Kumari Srilekha Vidyarthi v. State of UP [(1991) 1 SCC 212]. The Supreme Court deprecated this trend and said that appointment to such vital offices should not be allowed on the basis of political party preferences. But even today, state governments distribute these offices among their sympathizers. And after assuming office many incumbents feel that they need to look after the interests of the ruling party.

The parliament amended the CrPC so that state governments could adopt prosecution services consisting of a director of public prosecutions at the top and district public prosecutors and assistant public prosecutors at the lower formations. Section 25A inserted by Act 25 of 2005, section 4 (with effect from 23 June 2006) lays down that:

25A. Directorate of Prosecution V (1) The State Government may establish a Directorate of Prosecution consisting of a Director of Prosecution and as many Deputy Directors of Prosecution as it thinks fit.

(2) A person shall be eligible to be appointed as a Director of Prosecution or a Deputy Director of Prosecution, only if he has been in practice as an advocate for not less than ten years and such appointment shall be made with the concurrence of the Chief Justice of the High Court.

(3) The Head of the Directorate of Prosecution shall be the Director of Prosecution, who shall function under the administrative control of the Head of the Home Department in the State.

(4) Every Deputy Director of Prosecution shall be subordinate to the Director of Prosecution.

(5) Every Public Prosecutor, Additional Public Prosecutor and Special Public Prosecutor appointed by the State Government under sub-section (1), or as the case may be, sub-section (8), of section 24 to conduct cases in the High Court shall be subordinate to the Director of Prosecution.

(6) Every Public Prosecutor, Additional Public Prosecutor and Special Public Prosecutor appointed by the State Government under sub-section (3), or as the case may be, sub-section (8), of section 24 to conduct cases in District Courts and every Assistant Public Prosecutor appointed under sub-section (1) of section 25 shall be subordinate to the Deputy Director of Prosecution.

(7) The powers and functions of the Director of Prosecution and the Deputy Directors of Prosecution and the areas for which each of the Deputy Directors of Prosecution have been appointed shall be such as the State Government may, by notification, specify.

(8) The provisions of this section shall not apply to the Advocate General for the State while performing the functions of a Public Prosecutor.

The state governments are yet to implement these provisions. Reorganization of the public prosecution system in this pattern may help a lot in preventing police torture, harassment and delays. There would be more transparency in the police-citizen relationship if the public prosecutor were an independent functionary interposed between the police and the court.


Footnote: Paper prepared for the Fourth Asian Human Rights Consultation on the Asian Charter of Rule of Law, on the theme of prosecution systems in Asia, held in Hong Kong from 17 to 21 November 2008.

Posted on 2008-12-17

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