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Murder, he wrote

Sarmishtha Shat was strangled to death at her in-laws’ house in Hooghly on 28 January, 2007. Her post-mortem report, however, indicated that she had committed suicide. Further investigation revealed that Sharmishtha had indeed been murdered. A botched post-mortem report almost led to the murderer getting off scot free.

Krishnapada Das was tortured and beaten to death by the police in a South 24 Parganas lock-up on 8 February, 2007. The officer in charge produced a false affidavit along with the post-mortem report, stating that Das had hanged himself with a piece of cloth. However, it was later proved that the death had taken place owing to torture.

Such inaccurate post-mortem reports, which have the potential to subvert the cause of justice, are increasingly becoming common. “Post-mortem reports are often the weakest link in cases of unnatural death,” says human rights lawyer Tapas Kumar Bhanja.

However, thanks to the Law Commission’s proposal to enact a new Coroner’s Act, post-mortem reports may become less flawed. Commission chairman A.R. Lakshmanan handed over the recommendations on the lines of a similar British law to the law ministry in June this year.

The proposed law suggests the appointment of a coroner in each district of a state and one in each Union territory. The coroner would take charge of any unnatural death in his territory and would hold an inquest immediately afterwards. At the first sitting of the inquest, he would be required to interrogate all persons connected to the case and submit his report to the police commissioner. His report would then be regarded as material evidence in court.

The proposal also arms the coroner with the power to issue arrest warrants and send a suspect to a magistrate for trial. The coroner would also have the statutory power to order the exhumation of a body.

Experts feel that if a Coroner’s Act does come into force, it will cut the incidence of incorrect or fabricated post-mortem reports. Says Sunil Mitra, a criminal lawyer and former professor of law at Calcutta University, “Under the new Act, the coroner will enjoy immense power. Since post-mortems will be under his jurisdiction too, it can be expected that his report will be thorough and accurate. The coroner will also have the right to order the exhumation of the body if he feels that the post-mortem report is inconsistent.”

The key obviously lies in appointing qualified persons to coroners’ posts. And experts believe that if the new law is indeed modelled on the British law, only competent professionals will be selected for the job. Under the British law, a coroner has to be a person who is a barrister, a solicitor or a legally qualified medical practitioner with not less than five years’ experience. “If coroners are qualified legal professionals who can work independently, we can expect a careful examination of the cause of death. However, if he cannot work independently, problems are bound to creep into the most stringent act,” says Siladitya Sanyal, criminal lawyer, Calcutta High Court.

The Law Commission’s recommendations stipulate that a coroner’s inquest will be deemed a judicial proceeding. The coroner can inquire into the true cause of death in cases of death by police firing, a custody death or death arising from medical negligence. Even dowry deaths will come under his jurisdiction.

However, the proposed law is not without loopholes, say lawyers. The main problem, they feel, may arise from the fact that coroners will be employees of the state governments. “We have to see to it that coroners do not have to kowtow to ministers the way IAS officers do, or get mired in red tape every step of the way. They should also not become like the police who are known to be influenced by power and money,” says Bhanja.

But M.K. Sinha, retired deputy superintendent, Criminal Investigation Department, West Bengal, does not agree that the police have any role in fabricating post-mortem reports. “A post-mortem report is made by three persons —the investigating police officer, the doctor who conducts the post-mortem and the sub-divisional officer (SDO) who submits the final report. It is next to impossible to influence all three individuals to submit a wrong report,” he says.

Calcutta police commissioner Gautam Mohan Chakrabarti points out, “In Calcutta an officer of the rank of assistant commissioner of police has the right to conduct the inquest. Such a senior officer, I feel, is competent.” However, even Chakrabarti admits that in the rest of the state the situation may not be ideal. “An executive magistrate is authorised to conduct an inquest, whose competency I am not sure about.”

Sinha emphasises that there are several gaps in the present system. The scarcity of trained doctors, delay in sending the viscera for examination and the lack of infrastructure at district medical colleges are only some of the problems, he points out. “The coroner will no doubt be more effective than the SDO,” hopes Sinha.

Others point out that mistakes may occur in a post-mortem report even without mala fide intent. Says Dr Narayan Bhattacharya, who has been a part of the post mortem teams at N.R.S. Medical College, Calcutta, “Mistakes may occur since the tests are done in ill-equipped laboratories. Often the police too hand over bodies for post-mortem many hours after death, leading to errors.”

What’s more, till a few years back doctors were paid a paltry Rs 150 for a post-mortem examination, which, needless to say, did not motivate them to take the job seriously. Even today, the fee for a post-mortem stands at a measly Rs 500.

It is yet to be seen if the proposed law will address the infrastructural lacunae in conducting post-mortems. But the appointment of a coroner should go a long way in toning up the entire system.

Additional reporting by V. Kumara Swamy

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