How a Criminal Case can be initiated?

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Committal of a socially dangerous act, forbidden by the law is said to be a crime. For every such act, the law envisages a criminal liability on the offender. India has a well-established judicial, administrative, and executive framework for all criminal trials. There are three major criminal laws in India- The Indian Penal Code, 1960; The Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973; and The Indian Evidence Act, 1872. 

IPC is a substantive law that defines offences and assigns the right and liabilities of every individual governed by the act. CrPC being a procedural law, governs the procedure for all criminal trials in India, except as otherwise provided. CrPC is a comprehensive and exhaustive law which also defines the manner of collection of evidence, interrogation of the accused or examination of witnesses, a grant of bail, method of conviction, and the rights of the accused to a fair trial. IEA is a detailed treaty of the law of evidence and envisages the manner of production of the evidence in the court of law and the evidentiary value attached to such evidence. 

Types of Criminal Offences

In order to appreciate the Indian Criminal System, it is important to understand that the criminal offences fall under two major heads, viz. cognizable offences and non-cognizable offences. The first schedule of CrPC classifies various offences as cognizable and non-cognizable. 

  • Cognizable offence- an offence/case where a police officer may arrest the accused without a warrant and can start the investigation without the permission of the court. It is defined under section 2(c) of CrPC. Cognizable offences are considered heinous and serious in nature. Section 154 of CrPC mandates that a police officer is bound to register an FIR in case of a cognizable offence. Crimes like rape, murder, dowry death, etc. fall under this category. 
  • Non-Cognizable offence- an offence/case where the police cannot make an arrest without a warrant and cannot register an FIR or start an investigation without a prior permission of the court. On completion of the investigation, the police are required to file a charge sheet against the accused which is followed by a trial. Offences like forgery, cheating, defamation, etc. fall under this category. 

Types of Criminal Trial

As per the Code of Criminal Procedure, a criminal trial can be divided into three categories, viz.

  1. Warrant Trials
  2. Summon Trials
  3. Summary Trials

Initiation Procedure-

Warrant Trials- Section 2(x) of CrPC defines warrant cases as “a case relating to an offence punishable with death, imprisonment for life or imprisonment for a term exceeding two years. A trial in warrant cases begins either by filing an FIR in a police station or filing it directly to a magistrate. Sections 238-250 deal with the trial of warrant cases by a magistrate. 

A trial in warrant cases can be initiated in the following two ways-

  • By a police report- section 173 of CrPC states the requirement of a police report that is forwarded to a magistrate by the police officer. The accused is brought before the magistrate at the commencement of trial. The police report is forwarded to the magistrate after the completion of the investigation for the magistrate to take cognizance of the offence. 
  • By other than a police report- in this case, the complainant can directly approach the magistrate and file a complaint regarding the offence committed. 

Warrant Cases instituted under a police report-

The first step of trial in a warrant case is the filing of the First Information Report or FIR by the aggrieved person or any other person who has the information of the committal of a cognizable offence. The police officer-in-charge is supposed to reduce such information in writing in the prescribed manner and read it aloud to the complainant. The police officer is also required to get a signature of the complainant on the report filed by him and give a copy of the same to the accused, free of cost. In case the complainant is a woman who has been subjected to a sexual offence, acid attack, etc. it is required by the law for a female officer to file her report taking care of all the precautionary measures prescribed by the law. 

The police are then supposed to conduct an investigation based on the report filed by the complainant to discover the facts and find the relevant details of the case. On the completion of the investigation, a charge-sheet is filed and all the documents are forwarded to the magistrate by the police. 

The magistrate is obliged to give a copy of all the documents to the accused under section 207. The magistrate further convenes a hearing and provides a reasonable opportunity for both the prosecution and defence to present their cases. If the charges against the accused are found baseless and lacking substance the accused can be discharged at this stage under section 239. However, if prima facie the magistrate finds enough evidence against the accused the trial is taken further. 

Warrant Cases instituted otherwise than on police report-

Sections 244-247 of CrPC deal with the procedure of cases instituted otherwise than on a police report. It begins with the filing of a complaint directly with the magistrate. The accused is brought before the magistrate and the magistrate begins the proceeding by taking Pre Charge Evidence and thereafter initiating a hearing process. The prosecution makes arguments to prove the guilt of the accused while the defence challenges the allegations made by the prosecution. Further after an argument on the charges filed, if the magistrate finds the accusations against the accused to be baseless or a lack of sufficient grounds or evidence to convict the accused, he might dismiss the case and discharge the accused or order a further investigation of the case by the police. 

Summon Trials- section 2(w) of the Code of Criminal Procedure defines a summon case as a case in which the offence committed is punishable with an imprisonment of a term of fewer than 2 years. A summon case can however be converted to a warrant case at any time by the magistrate if he thinks that the case is a warrant case. Section 251-259 lays down the various stages of a criminal trial in summon cases. Summon cases are less serious than warrant cases and therefore they must be discharged speedily for a quick remedy. 

At the pre-trial stage, the process of filing of FIR and investigation is conducted and appropriate charges are framed against the accused. In summon cases the charges need not to be framed in formal way and the magistrate can inform the accused about the facts of the case and the charges framed against him and can be made answerable for the same. In summon cases the magistrate is not bound to hear the arguments of both the parties and can frame the charges on the basis of the prosecution report or the complaint itself. The accused at this stage has the opportunity to plead guilty for committing the offence and the magistrate can record his statement in writing and pronounces the sentence. However, if the accused does not plead guilty the trial is taken forward.

Summary Trials- the trial of cases in which the offences are punishable with imprisonment of a period not exceeding six months come under the category of summary trials. These cases generally take one or two hearings to decide the matter and are reserved for petty offences to save the time and resources of the court. Sections 261-265 of CrPC deal with the provisions of Summary trials. Any Chief Judicial Magistrate, Metropolitan Magistrate, Magistrate of First Class specially empowered in this behalf by the High Court can conduct a summary trial. 

It is the discretion of the judge to decide whether he wants to try a case in a summary trial or a regular trial. The magistrate is also at liberty to switch from a summary trial to a regular trial at any stage he deems fit. The procedure of trying a summary cases is the same as that of a summon cases (Section 251-259). However, it must be noted that as per Section 262 if a case is tried as a summary trial, the magistrate shall not pass a sentence of imprisonment for a term exceeding three months in case of conviction.

(Author: Shivani Agrawal, pursuing LLB from Faculty of Law, University of Delhi.)