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498A arrest buffer goes

Supreme Court. Picture by Prem Singh

New Delhi: The Supreme Court has removed a buffer against arrests under IPC Section 498A, which deals with domestic violence and dowry harassment, and stripped trial courts of power to quash criminal cases filed by a wife even if a matrimonial dispute has been settled.

A three-judge bench headed by Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra has scrapped the condition laid down in 2017 by another bench that said arrests could be executed only after a family welfare committee filed a report.

The directive to await reports from the family welfare committees was issued in the face of complaints of misuse of the law. But it had spread concern among rights advocates who feared that in the absence of immediate arrests, women would be at a higher risk of abuse.

However, the court retained a bar on immediate arrest under the section, saying the "investigating officers should be careful" and guided by principles that had already been laid down in other cases.

In the earlier cases mentioned by the court, it was held that there could be no automatic arrest of a person upon a complaint in a criminal case.

The investigating officer has to conduct a preliminary inquiry and arrest can be made only if a case is made out for such action and if the accused fails to appear for investigation.

"It will also be appropriate to direct the director-general of police of each state to ensure that investigating officers... should be imparted rigorous training with regard to the principles stated by this court relating to arrest.... The purpose has been to see that the investigating agency does not abuse the power and arrest people at its whim and fancy," Justice Misra said.

The 2017 judgment had conferred powers on family welfare committees to look into criminal complaints under Section 498A.

But the court said on Friday: "The prescription of duties of the committees and further action therefore, as we find, are beyond the code (CrPC) and the same does not really flow from any provision of the code."

The court did not change the earlier directive that said seizure of passports and issuance of red-corner notices against persons residing outside India should not be done in a routine manner.

On the practice of criminal cases being quashed after the settlement of matrimonial disputes, the court said only high courts could do so, and not trial courts.

The court was dealing with petitions filed by an NGO, Social Action Forum for Manav Adhikar, and others challenging the 2017 judgment.

It was on the plea of the NGO and the others that Section 498A was introduced in the statue in 1983 in view of rising dowry harassment cases and suicides by married women.

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