New Delhi, July 27: The Supreme Court today ruled that arrests under Section 498A that deals with domestic cruelty could be carried out only on the advice of civil society panels that must be set up in every district.
Arrests under the section should not be routine unless there is tangible injury, the court added.
A two-judge bench passed a slew of directives to pre-empt harassment of accused under the Indian Penal Code's Section 498A that can send guilty husbands and their relatives up to three years in jail. Conviction rates have been low in these cases, prompting some to suggest the section is often misused to settle scores.
The bench of Justices A.K. Goel and U.U. Lalit passed the following directives but clarified that they would not apply to offences involving tangible physical injuries or death.
• In every district, the district legal services authority must set up one or more family welfare committees, preferably made up of three members each.
• Paralegal volunteers, social workers, retired citizens and wives of government officials may become members; so may any other suitable and willing citizen.
• Committee members will not be called as witnesses to court (a provision that may encourage participation).
• Every Section 498A complaint received by the police or a magistrate should be referred to such a committee, which may interact with the parties.
• Within a month of receiving the complaint, the committee must send its report to the authority that had referred the complaint to it. The committee can report the facts of the case and give its opinion.
• No arrest should normally be made till the committee's report has been received. The investigating officer or magistrate will evaluate the committee report on merit.
• Committee members may periodically be given any required training by the legal services authority.
• Committee members may be given such honorarium as considered viable.
"Complaints under Section 498A and other connected offences may be investigated only by a designated investigating officer of the area. Such designations may be made within one month from today," said the judgment in a harassment case from Uttar Pradesh. The court said the officers should be trained within four months.
"Such designated officer may be required to undergo training for such duration (not less than one week) as may be considered appropriate. The training may be completed within four months from today."
It added: "If a bail application is filed with at least one clear day's notice to the public prosecutor/complainant, the same may be decided as far as possible on the same day. Recovery of disputed dowry items may not by itself be a ground for denial of bail if maintenance or other rights of wife/minor children can otherwise be protected....
"In respect of persons ordinarily residing out of India, impounding of passports or issuance of red-corner notice should not be a routine."
The court, however, clarified that these directions would not apply to offences involving tangible physical injuries or death.
It passed the directions while dealing with a case from Uttar Pradesh where the husband's family members have alleged they were falsely implicated.
Quoting from the National Crime Records Bureau and Union home ministry records, the bench said that 197,762 people had been arrested in the country in 498A cases in 2012.
Some 47,951 of them - about a fourth - were women, that is, mothers-in-law and sisters-in-law of the complainants. Chargesheets were filed in 93.6 per cent of the cases but the conviction rate was just 14.4 per cent, the court noted. In 2013, the conviction rate was 15.6 per cent.
"Violation of human rights of the innocent cannot be brushed aside. Certain safeguards against uncalled-for arrest or insensitive investigation have been addressed by this court," the bench said.
"Still, the problem continues to a great extent. To remedy the situation, we are of the view that involvement of civil society in the aid of administration of justice can be one of the steps, apart from the investigating officers and the concerned."