Bombay High Court slams police for biased investigation in Section 498A IPC case against in-laws

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The Bombay High Court recently slammed the police for their “high-handed” investigation in a case filed by a woman alleging domestic violence and cruelty by her mother-in-law and father-in-law.

A division bench of Justices Anuja Prabhudessai and NR Borkar examined the evidence before it and concluded that the investigation was biased, ill-motivated and appeared to be a gross abuse of the process of law.

“In the absence of prima facie material, compelling an innocent person to approach the Court for discharge, quashing or to go through a trial and thereby subjecting him to mental trauma, humiliation, stigmatization and loss of reputation would imperil his personal liberty, which is sacred and sacrosanct. In the instant case, despite there being no prima facie material to show the involvement of the petitioners in commission of any cognizable offence, they have been dragged in a matrimonial dispute,” the Court found.

Therefore, the Court proceeded to set aside the criminal proceedings against the complainant’s parents-in-law (petitioners).

The Court also noted that the mother-in-law had passed away while the matter was still pending. Nevertheless, the Court recorded that it was important to clear her name, image and reputation.

The complainant-woman got married to the adopted son of the petitioners in 2018. The son later left for Dubai for a job, while the complainant stayed back with her in-laws. She moved to Dubai later with her husband, but would stay at her parents’ house whenever she came to Mumbai.

Her complaint, however, highlighted that during her stay in the matrimonial home, her mother-in-law would harass her over trivial issues and her father-in-law would taunt her.

The woman also alleged that her husband would constantly fight with her and subject her to physical and mental cruelty. She further claimed that he failed to return certain valuables to her.

The Malabar Hill police lodged a first information report (FIR) against her parents-in-law and husband in September 2020 for various offences including cheating under Section 420 and cruelty under Section 498A of the Indian Penal Code (IPC).

The parents-in-law then approached the High Court to quash the FIR against them. In 2021, the High Court directed the police not to file the chargesheet without the permission of the court.

In its final judgment, the Court concluded that even if the complainant’s allegations against her in-laws were accepted, it would not constitute the offences of cheating or the offence of cruelty under Section 498A of the IPC.

“It is well settled that to prove offence under Section 498-A, it has to be established that the woman has been subjected to cruelty continuously or persistently or at least in close proximity of time of lodging the complaint. Petty quarrels do not amount to cruelty,” the Court said.

Pertinently, the Court was also critical of the fact that the police had filed its chargesheet in the matter despite an interim order not to do so without the Court’s permission. The Court was unconvinced by the explanation that the chargesheet had been filed by mistake and oversight.

“The arbitrary manner in which the investigating agency has investigated this case indicates that the action of the Investigating Officer was to overreach the order of the Court which cannot be countenanced and in fact needs to be deprecated,” the Court said.

The Court further noted that owing to the criminal case against them, the bank accounts of the petitioners remained frozen at a time when the mother-in-law needed funds to treat her COVID-19 condition and pneumonia.

“By such drastic and high handed action, the Investigating Officer compelled the petitioner to beg and borrow money from their relatives for their survival and sustenance, striking at the very right to live with human dignity,” the Court said.

The Court proceeded to allow the petition and quash the criminal case against the parents-in-law.

“The Investigating Officer does not have unfettered discretion to brand an innocent person as an accused, to file chargesheet and send him for trial, unless uncontroverted allegations and material collected in course of the investigation raise a suspicion that the person is involved in commission of a cognizable offence,” the Court added.

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