SC issues norms for speedy disposal of cheque bounce cases

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The Supreme Court Friday came out with a slew of directions to ensure speedy disposal of cheque bounce cases across the country and asked the Centre to amend laws to ensure clubbing of trials in such cases if they are lodged against a person within a year related to same transaction.

The top court in March last year had taken cognizance of “humongous pendency” of the cheque bounce cases and on Friday came out with the directions to ensure speedy disposal of such matters which were 35.16 lakh as on December 31, 2019, out of total 2.31 crore pending criminal cases in the country.

A five judge Constitution bench headed by Chief Justice S A Bobde, in a common order, took steps to “reduce the burden on the docket of the criminal courts” and asked the high courts to issue “practice directions” to magistrates, trying cheque dishonour cases, to record reasons “before converting trial of complaints under Section 138 of the (Negotiable Instruments) Act from summary trial to summons trial.”

In a case tried summarily under Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC), if the accused does not plead guilty, it is sufficient for a magistrate to record evidence and deliver a judgment instantly.

But, in summons trial under CrPC, the judicial officer will have to conduct the entire proceedings and record evidence after the accused does no plead guilty.

“We recommend that suitable amendments be made to the (NI) Act for provision of one trial against a person for multiple offences under Section 138 of the Act committed within a period of 12 months, notwithstanding the restriction in Section 219 of the Code,” said the bench, also comprising Justices L Nageswara Rao, B R Gavai, A S Bopanna and S Ravindra Bhat.

The bench took note of the submissions of amicus curiae and a provision of CrPC which provided that when a person is accused of more offences than one, of the same kind, committed within a space of 12 months, he may be tried at one trial for a maximum of three such offences.

It took note of the suggestion that the law on cheque bounce can be suitably amended by the Centre to “avoid multiplicity of proceedings where cheques have been issued for one purpose.”

CJI Bobde, writing the 27-page order for the bench, said, “Inquiry shall be conducted on receipt of complaints under Section 138 of the Act to arrive at sufficient grounds to proceed against the accused, when such accused resides beyond the territorial jurisdiction of the court.”

The order said for conducting inquiry before summoning the accused, the evidence of witnesses on behalf of the complainant “shall be permitted to be taken on affidavit” and in “suitable cases, the Magistrate can restrict the inquiry to examination of documents without insisting for examination of witnesses.”

To ensure that time is not lost in serving the summons to an accused in cheque bounce cases, it requested the high courts to “issue practice directions” to the trial magistrates to treat service of summons in one complaint under Section 138 forming part of a transaction, as deemed service in respect of all other complaints before the same court issued as part of the same “transaction”.

It also reiterated the earlier decisions and held that trial courts have no “inherent power” to reconsider their decisions to summon persons to face trials in the cheque bounce cases.

“…we reiterate that there is no inherent power of Trial Courts to review or recall the issue of summons. This does not affect the power of the Trial Court under Section 322 of the Code to revisit the order of issue of process in case it is brought to the court’s notice that it lacks jurisdiction to try the complaint,” it said.

The apex court, in its order, said that the issues, which have not been dealt by it in the verdict, would be considered by a committee headed by a former judge of the Bombay High Court Justice R.C. Chavan which was set up on March 10.

It said now a three-judge bench would take up the suo motu matter on ensuring early disposal of cheque bounce cases after eight weeks.

The order noted that the Chavan panel would consider various suggestions that are made for “arresting the explosion of the judicial docket”.

“The recommendations made by the Amicus Curiae relating to attachment of bank accounts to the extent of the cheque amount, pre-summons mediation and all other issues which are part of the preliminary note and the written submissions of the learned Amici Curiae shall be considered by the aforementioned Committee, in addition to other related issues which may arise during such consideration. The Committee is directed to deliberate on the need for creation of additional courts to try complaints under Section 138 of the Act,” it ordered. Eariler, the top court had termed the pendency of over 35 lakhs cheque bounce cases as “grotesque” and suggested to the Centre to come up with a law to create additional courts for a particular period of time to deal with such cases.