The Supreme Court on Friday removed the buffer against immediate arrest in dowry harassment cases by modifying its earlier order to set up a committee to examine the complaints of married women before taking coercive action against the husband and the in-laws.
The top court said the direction to create family welfare committees in every district and the power conferred in them was 'not in accord with the statutory framework'.
A bench of Chief Justice Dipak Misra and Justices A M Khanwilkar and D Y Chandrachud said 'the courts have ample power to grant pre-arrest bail, popularly called anticipatory bail, and even quash the criminal proceedings totally to stabilize the lawful balance, because no court of law remotely conceives of a war between the two sexes'.
The bench also modified a direction of its earlier verdict by which it was directed that if a settlement was reached between parties embroiled in a matrimonial dispute, the trial judge could close the criminal case.
The court had in July last year directed the creation of Family Welfare Committees in every district, which would verify the allegations of dowry harassment received by the police or magistrate. The arrest of a person could only be made after the report of the committee is received, it had then said.
The bench said statutory provisions and judgments on the issue already existed and hence the directions pertaining to constitution of Family Welfare Committees and conferment of power on them was 'erroneous' and 'is not in accord with the statutory framework'.
On a perusal of the earlier order, 'we find that the Court has directed constitution of the Family Welfare Committees by the District Legal Services Authorities and prescribed the duties of the Committees', it said.
"The prescription of duties of the Committees and further action therefor, as we find, are beyond the CrPC and the same does not really flow from any provision of the CrPC".
Dealing with Section 498A (subjecting a married woman to cruelty) of the Indian Penal Code, the bench said it cannot be denied 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," it said.
While modifying the verdict given by its two-judge bench in July 2017, the bench said that 'we find that the Court has taken recourse to fair procedure and workability of a provision so that there will be no unfairness and unreasonableness in implementation and for the said purpose, it has taken recourse to the path of interpretation'.
It said the purpose of the setting up such panels was to see that the investigating agency does not abuse its powers and arrest people at its whim and fancy.
Dealing with the closure of case after settlement between parties engaged in matrimonial dispute, the bench said, "The directions to settle a case after it is registered is not a correct expression of law."
It said a criminal proceeding which is not compoundable can be quashed only by the high court under Section 482 of Code of Criminal Procedure and when settlement takes place, then both the parties can file a petition under CrPC and the High Court, considering the bona fide of the petition, may quash the same.
"The power rests with the high court," it said.
The bench directed 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 498A of IPC should be imparted rigorous training with regard to the principles stated by the court relating to arrest.
The two-judge bench in July last year had said that the complaints under Section 498-A and other connected offences may be investigated only by a designated Investigating Officer of the area.
It had said that such designated officers may be appointed within one month from the date of order and they have to undergo training for a period not less than one week.