In a recent judgement of Manjeet Singh v. State of Haryana, Criminal Appeal No. 875 of 2021, a bench of the Supreme Court comprising of Justice D. Chandrachud and Justice M.R. Shah clarified the scope and ambit of the powers of the court under Section 319 of CrPC. The bench was hearing the matter in appeal arising out of Punjab and Haryana High Court judgement in CRR No. 28 of 2018 whereby High Court upheld the order given by the trial court and dismissed the revision petition of the appellant wherein he sought to summon private respondents as additional accused.

Relevant Facts

The brief facts of the case are that the appellant and one Amarjit Singh were attacked by Sartaj Singh and 4 others while they were returning home in the car. The attackers were armed and blocked the road with their car. When the appellant and Amarjit Singh stepped out of the car, Sartaj Singh started firing indiscriminately with his gun, which led to Amarjit’s immediate death and the appellant getting injured. A case was filed and after investigation, a final report was filed against only Sartaj Singh and the other accused were exonerated and put in column no.2. Subsequently, the appellant filed an application under Sec 319 CrPC to summon the other respondents as additional accused, which was dismissed by the trial court. As a result, the appellant filed a revision application against the trial court’s order which was also dismissed. After this feeling dissatisfied, the appellant approached the Supreme Court.

Court’s Observations and Verdict

The SC Bench used this appeal as an occasion to elaborate upon the scope and ambit of powers of the court under Section 319 CrPC to clarify the conditions under which a person who seems to be guilty of an offence can be summoned by the court. The learned counsel for the appellant argued that both the trial court and High court did a serious error in dismissing the petition under Sec 319 to summon the respondents and have failed to exercise powers given under this Section. The court relied on a catena of decisions such as Hardeep Singh v. State of Punjab, Lakshman Singh v. State of Bihar, S. Mohammed Ispahani v. Yogendra Chandak, Mohd. Shafi v. Mohd. Rafiq, Rajesh v. State of Haryana, and reached a consensus.

The court observed that in order to invoke Section 319 against a person, it is not necessary that he must be an accused, he can either be a person kept in Column 2 of charge-sheet or someone whose name has appeared in any material brought before the court, but not yet investigated. He must be someone whose complicity can be inferred and has a connection with the commission of offence. Commenting upon the stage at which this provision can be invoked, the court said that only after the trial proceeds and begins with the recording of evidence can this section be used. Only after the charge-sheet is filed, the stage of inquiry is reached and after the court is done with the framing of charges, the trial commences and power under Section 319 can be used. However, there are certain exceptions such as during the stage of Sections 207/208 CrPC, committal, etc. wherein this provision cannot be exercised since these are just pre-trial stages that put the process into motion.

The word “evidence” refers to only such evidence as is made before the court, in relation to statements, and as produced before the court, in relation to documents. Only such type of evidence can be considered by the court while exercising powers under this section and the material gathered during investigation cannot be considered. Apart from such evidence which is collected during the trial, any material which the court receives after taking cognizance and before the commencement of trial cannot be used to invoke Section 319 CrPC. It can only be used to corroborate and give weight to the evidence recorded by the court during trial. Furthermore, there is no need of testing the evidence on cross-examination, even on the basis of evidence that appears in examination-in-chief, the court or magistrate can proceed against such persons.

The degree of satisfaction needed to invoke the Section 319 CrPC is high but not absolute. It is invoked in circumstances where strong and convincing evidence is there linking the said person to the commission of offence. The power under Section 319 CrPC cannot be exercised in a casual manner. The test applied is one which is more than prima facie case as exercised at the time of framing of charge, but short of satisfaction to an extent that the evidence, if goes unrebutted, would lead to conviction. In case this satisfaction is not achieved by the court, it must not exercise power under this section.

Even in cases where the complainant has failed to exercise his power to file a protest petition asking the court to summon other persons as additional accused, the court has power under Section 319 CrPC to summon those persons whose names are there in FIR but not implicated in charge-sheet to face trial, given that some evidence props up against the said accused. Also, the court must not appreciate the merits of the case while using these powers since such things are to be done while the trial is in motion.

The court considered all these factors and applied the law and concluded that the trial court and High Court had erred in dismissing the application under Section 319 CrPC. The court held that application filed by the appellant summoning the respondents is allowed and the trial court is directed to summon such persons as additional accused in the trial since the persons sought to be summoned were mentioned in FIR with their specific roles and the appellant was an injured eye-witness.

The court gave a very wide interpretation of Section 319 CrPC. The goal is to ensure that the real perpetrator of a crime does not get away unpunished. Courts have been empowered with powers to make sure that criminal administration of justice functions properly. An effort has been made to empower courts to find the truth so that no innocent person is punished and simultaneously the guilty are punished under the law. This keeps a check on the working of investigating agencies and allows the courts to call the said accused to trial in cases where such agencies do not bring charges against the real culprits. A duty has been cast upon the courts to implement laws and ensure justice. The powers conferred by the Section 319 CrPC upon the courts are very important and must exist in our system, where real accused getting away with a crime without being brought to book by manipulating the investigating or prosecuting agency is a common phenomenon.

Such a constructive and purposive interpretation ensures that true justice prevails and no one gets away by manipulating the system. This interpretation given by the court will act as a guiding light for all the subsequent cases dealing with Section 319 CrPC.

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