Understanding Inquest and its Procedure

Investigation on an inquiry under Section 174 of the Code is distinct from the investigation as contemplated under Section 154 of the Code relating to commission of a cognizable offence. In the present case, the Mumbai Police has done nothing except attempting to stretch the purview of Section 174 without drawing up any FIR.

Hon’ble Justice Hrishikesh Roy in Rhea Chakraborty’s Case[i]

Since the passing of judgement, lot of people are talking about Inquest procedure and its scope. The problem lies not in discussing but having a discussion based on wrong understanding of the inquest procedure.  So today’s post is an attempt to present the inquest procedure and its scope in a simplified manner so that even students from non-criminal law background can also understand it easily.

An investigation under Section 174 CrPC[ii] is limited in scope and is confined to the ascertainment of the apparent cause of death. It is concerned with discovering whether in a given case the death was accidental, suicidal or homicidal or caused by animal and in what manner or by what weapon or instrument the injuries on the body appear to have been inflicted.[iii]

It is for this limited purpose that persons acquainted with the facts of the case are summoned and examined under Section 175 CrPC[iv]. The details of the overt acts are not necessary to be recorded in the inquest report. The question regarding the details as to how the deceased was assaulted or who assaulted him or under what circumstances he was assaulted or who are the witnesses of the assault is foreign to the ambit and scope of proceedings under Section 174. Neither in practice nor in law it is necessary for the person holding the inquest to mention all these details. Their omission is not sufficient to put the prosecution out of Court.[v]

In Shakila Khader v. Nausher Gama[vi], a contention was raised before the court that non-mention of a person’s name in the inquest report would show that he was not an eyewitness of the incident. It was repelled by the court on the ground that an inquest under Section 174 CrPC is concerned with establishing the cause of death and only evidence necessary to establish it need to be brought out.

The same view was taken in Eqbal Baig v. State of Andhra Pradesh[vii] that the non-mention of name of an eye-witness in the inquest report could not be a ground to reject his testimony. Similarly, the absence of the name of the accused in the inquest report cannot lead to an inference that he was not present at the time of commission of the offence as the inquest report is not the statement of a person wherein all the names (accused and also the eye-witnesses) ought to have been mentioned. There is absolutely no requirement in law of mentioning the details of the FIR, names of the accused or the names of the eye-witnesses or the gist of their statement nor it is required to be signed by any eye-witness.

Why inquiry into the cases of Unnatural Death

If a person dies naturally, then there lies no suspicion so as to the death of the person. But in case of unnatural death, the death is caused due to circumstances which needs to be explained and examined. There lies an obligation on the state to secure the health and life of every citizen of the country. If any crime is committed, the crime is against the state. If a person dies due to unnatural circumstances, the state is burdened to identify the cause of death and if there lies a suspicion as to the cause of death, the state must take appropriate steps to punish the guilty.

Procedure prior to starting of Inquest- Whether FIR needs to be registered?

Chapter XII CRPC deals with giving/reporting of information to police in cognizable cases and its power of investigation. Section 154(1)[viii] falling under this deals with registration of FIR by the officer in charge of a police station on the information laid before him related to a cognizable offence. It casts a statutory duty on him to enter the substance of such information in the prescribed register/form which is commonly called FIR and the act of entering it is called registration of a crime or case. As it is, the officer has no choice but to enter the substance of information as laid before him, if it relates to commission of cognizable offence and he cannot embark upon any elaborate inquiry to ascertain the genuineness or reasonableness of such information and to refuse registration of a case on that. He may conduct some discreet inquiry if the complaint/report contains uncertain, indefinite and ambiguous allegations raising doubts about the commission of a cognizable offence. But it is not open to him to conduct a full dress enquiry into the merit, reasonableness or correctness of the allegations and to assume the role of a trial court in the process.[ix]

An examination of provisions of Chapter XII of CrPC shows that it provides for two types of investigation. The first begins with information in cognizable offences referred inSection 154(1) culminating in registration of FIR and ends with the filing of charge sheet/challan before the court under Section 173[x]. The other commences with the inquest proceedings and ends with filing of inquest report by the Police Officer before District Judge or SDM or by the Magistrate himself.

Another noteworthy distinction is that investigation pursuant to Section 154(1) is into an offence and it is to ascertain the apparent cause of death under Section 174. The Inquest report may or may not lead to registration of an FIR, but it would not operate as a bar to such registration on informant/complainant’s information/complaint if it otherwise prima facie disclosed a cognizable offence. Nor does it serve as a substitute for the investigative process that commences with registration of an FIR.[xi]

Earlier what was happening that Police was rarely registering FIR in such cases and even if it registered under Section 174 of the Code of Criminal Procedure (inquiring suicide or suspicious death), and subsequently found out that no offence has been made out, they filed a final report before an Executive Magistrate and closed the entire case without even intimating the victim or complainant and the judicial magistrate concerned.

Stating that such a practice is erroneous and is in violation of the provisions of the CrPC, Justice Venkatesh in Madurai Bench of Madras High Court vs Dist. Suptd. Of Police[xii], gave certain instructions to the police on how to proceed in such cases.

  • The police, on receipt of an information about the suspicious death, shall register an FIR under Section 174 of CrPC and thereafter proceed to the scene of occurrence to prepare an Inquest Report and a rough sketch of the place of occurrence in the presence of neighbours. The police have to submit both documents and inquest report before an Executive Magistrate to enable him to hold an independent inquest, the report of which shall be added to the investigation file.
  • The police, on the conclusion of the investigation, shall file a Final Report only before the jurisdictional Magistrate and not before the Executive Magistrate.
  • This will apply in both cases, whether the Final Report is a positive report (meaning that death not caused by suicide) or is a Closure Report,” and in case of closure report, a notice should be served to victim enabling them to file protest petition if they wish.
  • As a general proposition of law an F.I.R loses its authenticity if it is lodged after the Inquest Report is recorded. However, there may be cases where a Police Officer may receive a telephonic message or information to the effect that the deceased person is lying in a serious condition. In such cases the Police Officer may have to rush to the spot and the situation may warrant him to conduct an inquest and prepare a report on the spot, and thereafter a FIR may be registered under Section 174 of Criminal Procedure Code. That by itself does not make the FIR lose its authenticity. The reason is not far to seek. A combined reading of Section 2(h)[xiii] and Section 157[xiv] of Cr.P.C makes it clear that where an information regarding the cognizable offence is furnished to the Police, that information will be regarded as the FIR and all the inquiries held by the Police subsequent there to would be treated as an investigation, even though the formal registration of the F.I.R takes place only later. Therefore, in such cases the Inquest Report prepared by the Police Officer will be valid even though the F.I.R came to be registered later.

At this point Manoj K Sharma vs. State of Chhatisgarh[xv] needs to be considered. The court held that Sections 174 and 175 of the Code affords a complete Code in itself for the purpose of “inquiries” in cases of accidental or suspicious deaths and are entirely distinct from the “investigation” under Section 154 r/w Section 157 of the Code.

So don’t confuse inquest with investigation even though it started after filing of FIR. Investigation will start after conclusion of inquest.

Procedure of Inquest

In order to provide for the procedure in case a person dies unnaturally, Section 174 was enacted that laid down the procedure police officers and the magistrate must follow in cases of untimely deaths.

  1. The foremost duty of a PO/Magistrate is to determine the cause of unnatural death. The PO/magistrate shall examine and body and upon inquiry conclude as to the reason which caused the death of the person. The death may be caused by any reason as mentioned in the Section 174(1) of CrPC.
  2. Since Section 174 is very limited in its scope, therefore it is restricted to the suspicious circumstances that caused the unnatural death of a person and the magistrate has no scope or authority under this section to trace the person who has so caused the death. In the case of Radha Mohan Singh v State of Uttar Pradesh[xvi], the Supreme Court held that section 174 is limited and confined to the ascertainment of the apparent cause of death. The PO/magistrate is therefore bound by the limited scope of Section 174 and does not have to trace the person who has caused the death or determine who assaulted the dead person or in what manner or under what circumstances, etc. It is duty of the PO/magistrate therefore to not mention the name of the accused in the inquest report. It will lead to the report being held unsustainable
  3. In case no foul play is found in the death of the person, the dead body must be handed over to the legal heirs of the deceased.
  4. In cases where there is suspicion over the death of the deceased, then the dead body must be sent to the Government Medical Officer for post mortem.
  5. The PO/magistrate need not examine all the witnesses while performing investigation for an unnatural death. In the case of Shakila Khader v Nausher Gama[xvii], the apex court held that for the purpose of preparing the inquest report, there need not be examination of all the witnesses as the purpose of the inquest is only to establish the cause of death. If a person’s name is not mentioned in the inquest report, it does not lead to the assumption that he was not an eye-witness to the incident. An inquest report is concerned with establishing the cause of death and only evidence to establish it need to be brought out.

Admissibility and Evidentiary value of statements recorded during Inquest

The statement of a witness recorded by the investigators during the inquest would be within the inhibition of Section 162 CrPC[xviii] with some minor exceptions-

  • The statement recorded under Section 174 CrPC cannot be used as a substantive piece of evidence.
  • At the most it can be used only as a previous statement to corroborate or contradict the person making it at the trial.[xix] According to Section 162 CrPC only contradiction is allowed and corroboration is not allowed of the statements which are recorded during investigation stage. Since Inquest is not Investigation[xx] the bar doesn’t apply and the statements can be used for corroboration also.
  • The statements contained in an inquest report, to the extent they relate to what the investigating officer himself saw and found are admissible (Direct Observation), but any statement made therein on the basis of what he heard from others (Hearsay), would be hit by Section 162 CrPC.[xxi] The reason is that statement made by the investigating officer in inquest report is not a statement made by any witness before the police during investigation but it is a record of what the Investigating Officer himself observed and found, such an evidence is the direct or the primary evidence in the case and is in the eye of law the best evidence. Unless the record is proved to be suspect and unreliable, perfunctory or dishonest, there is no reason to disbelieve such a statement in the inquest report. So such a statement in inquest report does not fall within the four corners of Section 162.
  • Where inquest report is signed by witnesses, the statements made in inquest report are hit by Section 162 CrPC and therefore will not be admissible in evidence, until and unless they are examined as witnesses at trial. However, Section 174 CrPC does not put an embargo on the powers of the police officers from obtaining the signatures of the inhabitants in whose presence inquiry was held and who concur with the report.[xxii]
  • The contents of inquest report cannot be treated as evidence, but they can be looked into to test the veracity of the witnesses.

Inquest Report and Post Mortem Report

Inquest report and post-mortem report cannot be termed to be basic or substantive evidence and any discrepancy occurring therein can neither be termed to be fatal nor even a suspicious circumstance which would warrant a benefit to the accused and the resultant dismissal of the prosecution case. Since post-mortem is conducted by an expert, so whenever there is discrepancy between cause of death in inquest report and post mortem report opinion expressed by the expert in post mortem report would carry more weight than the opinion and findings of a layman given in inquest report.


[i] https://thelawblog.in/2020/08/19/no-transfer-of-investigation-under-section-406-crpc-cbi-investigation-need-of-the-hour-understanding-the-rhea-chakrabortys-case/

[ii] https://indiankanoon.org/doc/411677/

[iii] Radha Mohan Singh Alias Lal Saheb And Others .V. State of U.P., [2006 (2) SCC 450].

[iv] https://indiankanoon.org/doc/5431/

[v] Podda Narayana v. State of A.P. AIR 1975 SC 1252.

[vi] AIR 1975 SC 1324.

[vii] AIR 1987 SC 923.

[viii] https://indiankanoon.org/doc/1980578/

[ix] Lalita Kumari vs Government of U.P., AIR 2012 SC 1515. Bhajan Lal vs State of Haryana, (1992 Supp. (1) SCC 335).

[x] https://indiankanoon.org/doc/1412034/

[xi] Shri Abhay Nath Dubey vs State Of Delhi And Ors., 99 (2002) DLT 114, 2002 (64) DRJ 126.

[xii] Crl.O.P.No.15515/2017.

[xiii] https://indiankanoon.org/doc/1067480/

[xiv] https://indiankanoon.org/doc/279174/

[xv] (2016) 9 SCC 1.

[xvi] [2006 (2) SCC 450].

[xvii] AIR 1975 SC 1324.

[xviii] https://indiankanoon.org/doc/523607/

[xix] Ch. Razik Ram, AIR 1975 SC 667.

[xx] Manoj K Sharma vs. State of Chhatisgarh, (2016) 9 SCC 1.

[xxi] George vs State, 1998 CrLJ 2034 (SC).

[xxii] Kuruvilla Joseph vs State, AIR 1952 SC 300.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Harshit Sharma

Harshit

Harshit Sharma has done his B.A., LL.B (Criminal Law Hons.), from National Law University, Jodhpur (2019) and he completed his Masters in Criminal Law in July 2020. He secured AIR-15 in CLAT PG (2019) and he has Qualified NTA NET (December 2019). Currently, he is preparing for his Delhi Judicial Services 2019 Interview and simultaneously working for his PhD enrolment. He can be reached at harshitsharmanluj@gmail.com.

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