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Supreme Court scraps district panels for dowry harassment cases

The ruling puts the onus for the use and possible misuse of section 498A of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) on law enforcement agencies.

india Updated: Sep 14, 2018 23:17 IST
HT Correspondent
HT Correspondent
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
Dowry harassment,Supreme Court,Dowry
A view of Supreme Court in New Delhi.(Sonu Mehta/HT File Photo)

A three-judge bench of the Supreme Court on Friday revised a 2017 judgment by a two-judge bench of the apex court that sought to prevent misuse of an anti-dowry law by forming a family welfare committee at the district level to look into complaints before arrests were made, and said the creation of such a panel is beyond the scope of the law.

The ruling puts the onus for the use and possible misuse of section 498A of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) on law enforcement agencies.

The previous order, passed in the Rajesh Kumar vs Union of India case, was seen by some as diluting the law. The case itself was prompted by the premise that section 498A was sometimes being misused to settle scores.

Setting aside the direction to form a committee, the bench, headed by chief justice of India Dipak Misra, said on Friday that while the law was well-intentioned, investigating and law enforcement agencies were sometimes over zealous in its application: “The prescription of duties of the Committees and further action therefore, as we find, are beyond the Code and the same does not really flow from any provision of the Code.”

“There can be no denial that there has to be just, fair and reasonable working of a provision. The legislature in its wisdom has made the offence under Section 498-A IPC cognizable and non-bailable. The fault lies with the investigating agency which sometimes jumps into action without application of mind,” the court said.

A bench of two judges — justices AK Goel (since retired) and UU Lalit — had on July 27, 2017, ordered constitution of one or more family welfare committees by the District Legal Services Authorities comprising three members. This was one of the guidelines the top court had issued in the view of the arguments made that the dowry harassment law was subject to rampant misuse. The committee was empowered to interact with parties personally and police were asked not to arrest until a report was received from the panel on the veracity of the complaint.

According to senior advocate Gynant Singh, the changes do not take away “the right of men to invoke various remedies against false and motivated complaints, and even to preempt arrest in such cases”. “But the extra-judicial committee had surely added scope for delay and harassment of women in genuine cases. The real objective/purpose of a law is defeated if it is tweaked with an eye on aberrations,” he said.

The court in its judgment on Friday even said the 2017 judgment permitting the committee to settle a case after it is registered was not a “correct expression of law”. A criminal proceeding, which is not compoundable, can be quashed by the High Court under the criminal procedure code, the bench said.

Doing away with the need for a committee, the CJI’s bench said the law provides for an anticipatory bail provision, which can be invoked by the aggrieved persons at an appropriate time.

Specific directions were issued to the police to abide by top court’s earlier order, including the one by a Constitution Bench suggesting that a preliminary enquiry may be held in matrimonial/family disputes.

“It will also be appropriate to direct the Director General of Police of each State to ensure that investigating officers who are in charge of investigation of cases of offences under Section 498-A IPC should be imparted rigorous training with regard to the principles stated by this Court relating to arrest,” said the bench.

A member of a men’s rights group said Friday’s order was a step in the right direction. “We welcome the scrapping of the family welfare committee — the committee created by the court had become an extortion racket against men.There was no transparency in its working,” said Santosh Patil, founder, Purush Adhikar Manch.

In its Friday ruling, the top court favoured the view taken in the 2017 judgement with regard to expediting bail plea in dowry cases. “The directions pertaining to Red Corner Notice, clubbing of cases and postulating that recovery of disputed dowry items may not by itself be a ground for denial of bail would stand on a different footing. They are protective in nature and do not sound a discordant note with the Code. When an application for bail is entertained, proper conditions have to be imposed but recovery of disputed dowry items may not by itself be a ground while rejecting an application for grant of bail under Section 498-A IPC,” the court said.

It, however, noted that a court cannot frame guidelines for the police regarding registration of FIRs on subjecting a married woman to cruelty for dowry, as the process has to be governed by statutory provisions.

“There are no gaps in the law to be filled up by the courts,” said the bench, which, apart from the CJI, comprised justices AM Khanwilkar and DY Chandrachud.

First Published: Sep 14, 2018 22:55 IST