Corruption by a public servant is an offence against the State and the society at large: Supreme Court

While setting aside the order of the Madras High Court, the Supreme Court held that the high court cannot quash criminal proceedings because of a compromise between the parties, when the offences are capable of having an impact not merely on the complainant and the accused, but also others.

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ON September 8, a Supreme Court bench consisting of Justices S. Abdul Nazeer and V. Ramasubramanian observed that “[i]t is needless to point out that corruption by a public servant is an offence against the State and the society at large. The Court cannot deal with cases involving abuse of official position and adoption of corrupt practices, like suits for specific performance, where the refund of the money paid may also satisfy the agreement holder.”

In the instant case, the original complainant was a worker in the technical wing of the factory of Metropolitan Transport Corporation, Perambur, Chennai, whom, along with others, the accused persons had allegedly promised to give jobs for vacancies existing for the posts of Conductor and Driver in the state’s Transport Department in lieu of money.

However, after the payment of the money, the accused failed to keep their end of the deal. Subsequently, the complainant filed a First Information Report (‘FIR’) against four persons, including the then Transport Minister, his brother of the Minister and his Personal Assistant, for alleged offences under Sections 405 (criminal breach of trust), 420 (cheating and dishonestly inducing delivery of property) and 506(1) (punishment for criminal intimdation) of the Indian Penal Code (‘IPC’).

After the final report was filed, one of the accused, B. Shanmugam, the P.A. to the then Minister, filed a petition in the Madras High Court, praying for quashing the criminal complaint against him. Before the high court, the complainant also filed an affidavit supporting Shanmugam and praying for quashing of the final report, on the ground that what the victims had with the accused was only a monetary dispute and that the same had been settled out of court, and that due to political rivalry between two groups, his complaint got converted into a more serious one, by including unwarranted statements which were not made by him.

The other victims who originally claimed to have paid money for procuring employment also filed individual affidavits supporting Shanmugam. Lastly, a joint compromise memo dated July 28, 2021, containing the signatures of all parties, was filed before the High Court.

The high court, via an order dated July 30, 2021, quashed the criminal complaint on the ground that “by passage of time, the parties have decided to bury their hatchet and that no useful purpose would be achieved by keeping the criminal case pending”. After noticing that the offences are not compoundable, the high court recorded that it had taken note of the guidelines issued by the Supreme Court in Parbatbhai Aahir versus State of Gujarat (2017) and State of Madhya Pradesh versus Dhruv Gurjar (2019), and concluded that the complaint could be quashed.

Locus standi

Following this, one of the aggrieved people who participated in the process of selection for the same job posts, but did not get selected, filed a special leave petition, contending that what happened was a cash-for-job scam and that he would have got selected if the scam had not taken place.

Additionally, an organisation named ‘Anti-Corruption Movement’ moved a Miscellaneous Petition before the high court seeking recall of the impugned order on the ground that the complaint involved allegations of corruption and abuse of official position, and that therefore the charge­sheet could not have been quashed based on a compromise between the parties.

The Supreme Court observed that persons who were more meritorious, but who did not get selected, on account of being edged out by candidates who paid money and got selected, are also victims of the alleged corrupt practices if those allegations are eventually proved.

The judgment, authored by Justice Ramasubramanian, stated that, “We cannot shy away from the fact that candidates, who are selected and appointed to posts in the Government/public corporations by adopting corrupt practices, are eventually called upon to render public service. It is needless to say that the quality of public service rendered by such persons will be inversely proportionate to the corrupt practices adopted by them. Therefore, the public, who are recipients of these services, also become victims, though indirectly, because the consequences of such appointments get reflected sooner or later in the work performed by the appointees. Hence, to say that the appellants have no locus standi, is to deny the existence of what is obvious.”

Prevention of Corruption Act

The Supreme Court expressed its dismay that the FIR filed against the accused did not include offences under the Prevention of Corruption Act, 1988.

Shanmugam, the person who received the money from the complainant and the victims, was stated to be a P.A. to the the Transport Minister. Additionally, the money was said to have been paid at the residence of the Minister with his knowledge, and the Minister is stated (in the FIR) to have acknowledged that those who paid the money would be rewarded with the appointment orders.

Thus, according to the judgment, it was clear that the final report implicated the accused for offences under Sections 406 (punishment for criminal breach of trust), 409 (criminal breach of trust by public servant, or by banker, merchant or agent), 420, and 506(1) of the IPC. None of these offences is compoundable and the same was acknowledged by the high court, but it still proceeded to quash the final report, purportedly based on the guidelines issued by the Supreme Court in two of its decisions.

However, the Supreme Court made it clear that courts have to go slow even while exercising jurisdiction under Section 482 (saving of inherent powers of High Court) of the Criminal Procedure Code (‘CrPC’) or Article 226 (power of High Courts to issue certain writs) of the Constitution in the matter of quashing criminal proceedings on the basis of a settlement reached between the parties, when the offences are capable of having an impact not merely on the complainant and the accused but also others. Therefore, the high court ought not to have quashed the criminal proceedings based on the compromise, the bench held.

The bench indicted the high court’s decision by observing that “We are constrained to say that even a novice in criminal law would not have left the offences under the [1988 Act], out of the final report.” 

The Supreme Court also noted that there are two other cases arising from the same scam, where allegations of corruption were made, which have been stayed by the high court. Regarding this, the court observed, “We do not know how the High Court could have stayed prosecution of persons under the [1988 Act], especially in matters of this nature. As a matter of fact, the State ought to have undertaken a comprehensive investigation into the entire scam, without allowing the accused to fish out one case as if it was a private money dispute.”

The bench allowed the appeals, set aside the impugned order of the high court, and restored the criminal complaint. The Investigation Officer (‘IO’) was directed to proceed under Section 173(8) of the CrPC to file a further report, based on the observations made in this judgment. Additionally, the Special Court before which the criminal case is pending will now exercise power under Section 216 of the CrPC if there is any reluctance on the part of the State or IO, the bench ruled.

Regarding the two other cases wherein offences under the 1988 Act are included, the bench directed that if they are under the orders of stay passed by the high court, the State shall take appropriate steps to have the stay vacated.

Lastly, the bench held that at the time of trial, the Special Court may not be swayed by the observations contained herein, but proceed on the merits of the case and the law on the points.

Click here to view the Supreme Court’s judgment.