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The law for you

As residents of a crime-infested world, it’s a document we hear about almost every day. The first information report (better known as the FIR) is the one record that initiates a legal process of any serious nature, the first step for any commoner engaging with the law. Cases are thrashed out on the basis of this very document, and justice is either dispensed or denied. But commonplace as it may seem, how many ordinary citizens really know what an FIR is all about, and how to go about filing one, if need be?

The document finds mention in Sections 154-157 of the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC), but few members of the public have ready access to the law, which is why much about it remains unknown. However, if it were to be summed up in simple words, the following is what one might want to remember if one needs to seek help from the police in future.

To begin with, the FIR is a written document that is prepared by the police upon receiving information about what is called a cognizable offence. Simply put, cognizable offences (CO) are those of a serious kind, where the police have the authority to investigate or arrest people without any instruction or warrant from a court of law. While the list of COs is long, common examples of COs include murder or attempt to murder, rape, theft, kidnapping, robbery, forgery, rioting and serious assault — all such offences should be reported to the police through an FIR.

To file an FIR, you are required to give a written or oral account of the offence to the officer-in-charge of a police station who will prepare a draft of the FIR. The officer is then required to read out the draft to you or anyone else who files the complaint. You then okay it or rectify it if there are errors. Following the endorsement, the police prepare a final report and hands over a copy to you as acknowledgment.

That, of course, is the ideal situation. Many in legal circles say that the process is tricky, since the slightest of errors may lead to the botching up of the judicial process later. Clearly, there’s a basic checklist every informant needs to follow.

First, while there’s no time limit for filing an FIR, make sure it is filed as soon as possible. If there’s a delay in filing, the informant should have a valid reason for not filing the FIR immediately.

Next, an FIR can be filed in any official language of India. “This may lead to complications, since the police may use a language that the informant isn’t conversant with,” says Anant Asthana, legal officer of Delhi-based civil rights body Human Rights Law Network. “But in that case, the police are duty bound to translate the report into a language the informant follows, and then have it duly endorsed.”

When it comes to informing the police, certain things must be mentioned. According to a sample form made available by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), some things that must definitely be mentioned are the informant’s name and address, the date, time and location of the incident, the true facts of the incident, names and descriptions of the persons involved in the incident and witnesses, if any. Being vital facts, these are mandatory for the police to follow up on in any case.

Yet the police in India are notorious for inaction and non co-operation, and very often are known to either refuse to file an FIR or to tweak it to suit their own ends. It takes anywhere from one to two hours for the police to register an FIR, and they tend to try and dodge this as far as possible. Experts say police often dilly dally in registering the report, asking the informant to wait a day or two, but that’s only to stave off their own responsibility, and shouldn’t stop informants from insisting that a report be filed.

“On the ground, informants often complain about cops writing a report in a way that a CO is made to sound like a non-cognizable offence (NCO), thereby minimising the police’s responsibility,” says Pushkar Raj, programme officer, police reforms, at the Delhi-based NGO Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI).

An NCO, as opposed to a CO, implies that the crime is not of a serious nature, and includes minor offences such as scuffles, trivial skirmishes, threatening someone or creating a public nuisance. For an NCO, the police are obliged to merely file an entry in their daily diary, and later follow it up at a magistrate’s court. Needless to say, it’s something that the cops — citing surplus responsibilities — seldom do.

Hence experts maintain that if an informant has any doubt regarding the way a draft has been formulated or an offence has been defined, they must insist on having it corrected immediately. And as for the cops refusing to file an FIR, the law is on the informant’s side. A 2006 Supreme Court judgment, delivered in the Ramesh Kumari vs NCT of Delhi case, says it is mandatory for a police officer to register a case, and that the “genuineness or otherwise of the information can be considered only after registration of the complaint”.

“Nonetheless, if a person is still refused the privilege of filing an FIR, the inaction can be reported to the superintendent of police (SP) of the area concerned, by post, in writing and duly signed,” says Raj. If the SP’s office doesn’t act on the issue, the applicant then has the option of moving the court of a magistrate. If a lower court turns down the appeal, a higher court can always be approached.

That said, there are other things about the FIR process one needs to remember. An FIR needn’t be filed solely by a victim — anyone who has knowledge of the offence can file an FIR on the victim’s behalf. “Nowadays, calling up police helpline numbers such as 100 and giving all the relevant information is a very good way to get a complaint registered,” says Asthana. Calling 100 automatically ensures an FIR is registered, that is, if the police are pro-active enough. But at least, a third party who wants to inform the police and yet wants to stay out of the legal process can do his bit by calling 100. The police are authorised to file an FIR by themselves upon hearing of a crime.

Besides, the law also makes room for an FIR to be updated later, so it’s wrong to think that an FIR, once registered, cannot be supplemented. Informants can ensure this by just going to the cops or the magistrate’s court and saying that more information needs to be added to the already given statement. More info doesn’t mean altering previous info, just adding to it. “The FIR sums up all that can be recorded at the very first instance, but if other details come to an informant’s mind later, the police are bound to take note of them and update the report, as and when necessary,” says Supreme Court lawyer Nitya Ramakrishnan.

All said, though, one needs to remember two things. First, the police may not investigate a complaint even if an FIR has been filed, if the case is either not serious in nature or the police feels there isn’t enough ground to investigate. However, Section 157 of the CrPC notes that in such a situation, the police are bound to “notify to the informant… the fact that he will not investigate the case”. If unhappy, the informant again has the option of moving court.

And finally, one must remember never to file a false complaint, give wrong information, exaggerate and distort facts or make vague statements to the police while filing an FIR. Section 203 of the Indian Penal Code regards misinformation as an offence, and people guilty of providing false information can be “punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to two years, or with fine, or with both”.

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