Only if fresh incriminating material comes to light can the sanctioning authority reverse its earlier decision and reopen a closed corruption case against a public servant, Supreme Court ruled.
A bench headed by justice Aftab Alam and justice RM Lodha said that the power of review was "not unbridled or unrestricted" — the sanction to prosecute cannot be reviewed on the same set of material.
According to the bench, "unrestricted power of review" might extend the case forever. If there is a change in the government or the person who can such sanction is a different one, the matter might be opened again for "reasons best known to it and a different order may be passed", the bench ruled.
The apex court ruled so in an appeal filed by Himachal Pradesh government that wanted to prosecute a drug inspector Nishant Sareen for allegedly accepting a bribe of R5,000 in 2005. Although, the principal secretary of health initially refused to sanction prosecution of Sareen in November 2007, he reversed his decision on the same set of material in March 2008.
Section 19 of the Prevention of Corruption Act, 1988, requires sanction to prosecute a public servant accused of corruption. Similarly, Section 197 of the Code of Criminal Procedure says that public servants cannot be prosecuted for an offence said to have been committed while they were on duty, except with previous sanction of the competent authority.
The state government appealed to SC after the high court quashed the sanction order. Dismissing the appeal, the SC said the right recourse available to the state government was to challenge the refusal of sanction to prosecute and not to simply reverse it without there being any fresh material before the sanctioning authority.
"The object underlying Section 19 is to ensure that a public servant does not suffer harassment on false, frivolous, concocted or unsubstantiated allegations," the bench said.
"The exercise of power under Section 19 is not an empty formality since the government, or for that matter the sanctioning authority, is supposed to apply its mind to the entire material and evidence placed before it, and on examination thereof reach conclusion
fairly, objectively and consistent with public interest as to whether or not in the facts and circumstances sanction be accorded to prosecute the public servant.