Full Bench strikes down 180-day limitation period on appeals under Section 14A of SC/ST Act; Gives detailed interpretation on applicability of Section 14A of the Act

Allahabad High Court: A Full bench comprising of CJ Dilip B. Bhosale, Ramesh Sinha and Yashwant Varma, JJ. struck down the proviso to Section 14A (3) of the Scheduled Castes/ Schedules Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Amendment Act, 2015, which imposed a 180-day bar for preferring appeals against judgments, sentences, bail orders and other orders passed by Special Courts under the SC/ST Act and gave a comprehensive interpretation to questions arising from Section 14A of the Act.

The Court took suo motu cognizance of the validity of Section 14A of the Act, in view of divergent opinions of two Single Benches of the court. The present PIL was tagged along with another PIL, numbered as Criminal Writ-PIL No. 11 of 2018, challenging the validity of Sections 14A (2) and 14A (3) of the Act for being violative of Articles 14 and 21 of the Constitution of India. The provisions relevant to the present matter were:

  • Section 14A(1) stating that appeals from judgments, sentences or orders, except interlocutory orders, of a Special/Exclusive Court, trying SC/ST cases would lie to the High Court on both facts and law.
  • Section 14A(2) stating that appeals from bail orders of the Special/ Exclusive Court would lie to the High Court, even if it is an interlocutory order.
  • Section 14A(3) stating that an appeal under this Section should be preferred within a period of 90 days (extendable on court’s discretion). However, the second proviso to this clause laid down that the limitation period to not be extendable beyond 180 days.
  • Section 14A(4) providing for disposal of every appeal preferred under sub-section (1) within three months from the date of admission of appeal.

The aforesaid provisions had an overriding effect over provisions of the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC).

The court noted that Section 14A primarily created an appellate forum at the level of the High Court to challenge any judgment, sentence or order, not being an interlocutory order, including an order refusing or granting bail. It was noted that though an appeal is not maintainable against interlocutory orders since an interlocutory order refusing or granting bail pertains to the liberty of the accused, an exception had been carved against the said general exclusion.

The challenge to Section 14A(2) was on the sole ground that Section 14A (2) ousted the concurrent jurisdiction of High Court under Section 439 CrPC in matters pertaining to grant of bail. The said challenge was dismissed holding that SC/ST Act is a special statute and as per the general principles of statutory construction, its non-obstante clauses had to be given overriding effect over a general enactment such as CrPC.

The Bench struck down the second proviso to Section 14A (3) holding it to be manifestly arbitrary in as much as it took away the salutary right of the first appeal, an integral facet of fair procedure under Article 21. It was held that absence of discretion in the court to consider condonation of delay even on the existence of sufficient cause rendered the said proviso wholly capricious, irrational and excessive.

The Bench further noted that the inherent and constitutional powers of High Court under Articles 226 and 227 of the Constitution were not ousted by Section 14A of the Act. However, a note of caution was given by the Bench stating that courts must exercise the principle of judicial restraint and allow such powers to be invoked only in exceptional and rare cases to secure justice.

The Court also noted thatthe scheme of the Act showed the manifest legislative intent to oust revisional powers of High Court under Section 397 CrPC and therefore Section 14A eclipsed the revisional jurisdiction of High Court.

Another question posed before the court was that since Section 14A of the Act, introduced by the amendment in 2015, came into effect from 26-1-2016, whether offences committed before the said date would also be subject to Section 14A. It was clarified that applicability of Section 14A would depend on the date of the judgment or order sought to be assailed. If the judgment sought to be appealed against was passed after the 26-01-2016, then only would Section 14A be triggered. It was further clarified that even if the impugned judgment was passed before 26-01-2016 but if the appeal against it is preferred after the said date, Section 14A would apply.

The 2015 amendment to SC/ST Act empowered Exclusive Special Courts established under the amended provisions to directly take cognizance of offences under the Act. The last question for determination before the Bench was as to whether the power to directly take cognizance of offences shall be exercisable by the existing Special Courts (constituted under the 1989 Act). On this point, the court held that the existing Special Courts did not have jurisdiction to directly take cognizance of offences; such existing courts could take cognizance of offences under the Act only after the concerned Magistrate commits the case as per Section 193 of CrPC. However, it was clarified that the same not be construed to be a disrobing of these courts’ powers to try offences under the Act.

The PIL was disposed of answering the issues framed for the consideration of the Full Bench, as detailed above, along with a parting observation that although the Amending Act came into force with effect from 26-01-2016, neither any Exclusive Special Courts had been established nor had any Special Courts been designated till the date of order. The Bench directed the State government to initiate the consultative process, as envisaged under Section 14 of the Act, to ensure that Exclusive Special Courts and Special Courts are constituted and designated within a period of eight weeks from the date of order. [Provision of Section 14A of SC/ ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Amendment Act, 2015, In Re; Criminal Writ – PIL No. 8 of 2018, decided on 10-10-2018]

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