Sky is the only limit for justice, Supreme Court; over-rules Andhra HC on conflict in central & state laws

The Supreme Court of India has abrogated an oft-quoted ruling by the Andhra Pradesh High Court on the applicability of state amendments to central laws.

The Court also restated its absolute powers to intervene in any case without the need for an appeal or complaint to push the cause of Justice and refused to be bound by the “purview of ordinary law” and declared that “sky is the limit” in its pursuit of justice.

Disposing of a case involving the question of whether or not polygamy is a cognizable crime (in which the police can intervene) or not, the Supreme Court held that any subsequent State amendment to a Central law in the concurrent list would have higher prominence if it has been approved by the President of India.

Under India’s federal set-up, the Centre and the State have law-making powers over specific subjects depending on whether it is included in the Central list, State list or the Concurrent list.

In 2007, the Andhra Pradesh High Court had held that if the Central and State law said different things about a particular subject in the concurrent list, the Central law would prevail.

The Andhra Pradesh High Court had said this while adjudicating a case involving the question of whether or not the police could have taken action in a complaint on polygamy — non-cognizable under Central law and cognizable under Andhra Pradesh law.

When a crime is non-cognizable, the police cannot initiate action against the criminal, but must wait for the affected party to complain against the crime in a court of law.

To deter Hindu men from holding more than one wife, the Andhra Pradesh government had passed a law 1992 that made polygamy a cognizable offence on which the police can conduct investigations and make arrests without a court complaint. This was, in effect, overturned by a bench of the Andhra High Court in 2007.

Quoting Article 254 of the Indian constitution, the Supreme Court, on Thursday, overturned the High Court’s interpretation calling it “contrary to all cannnons of interpretation of statute.”

“The reasoning given by the Division Bench of High Court of Andhra Pradesh in Mavuri Rani Veera Bhadranna (supra) that though the State Legislation amended the Schedule making the offence under Section 494 IPC cognizable.., the legislation made by the Parliament would prevail.., despite the fact that the State Legislation made amendment to the Schedule of Criminal Procedure Code, with respect, is erroneous and contrary to all cannons of interpretation of statute,” a Supreme Court bench of Justice JM Panchal and Justice HL Gokhale said.

It pointed out that State amendments failed to stand up against Central law on concurrent subjects only if the state law is not put before the President of India.

So saying, the Bench also quashed a single judge order of the Andhra Pradesh High Court which had struck down a police investigation and a case filed on the basis of it, involving allegations of polygamy against a police officer.

Interestingly, the Supreme Court appeal was filed by the Sub-Inspector of the Police for ‘complete’ relief from the proceedings against him.

Sensing that the case was going against him, his lawyer argued that the Supreme Court had no “revisional powers” like other courts to recast the nature of a case or grant reliefs that had not been prayed for, according to the Code of Criminal Procedure (Cr. PC.)

The Sub-Inspector pointed out that the Supreme Court cannot now reinstate the case against him (quashed by the High Court) as he was the only complainant and his complaint did not seek a reinstatement of the case against him. Rather, he pointed out, he wanted all proceedings quashed.

The Supreme Court was, however, not willing to buy the technicality, and declared that its powers were not entirely defined by the Criminal Procedure Code, but it held extensive powers under Article 136 of the Inddian Constitution.

It said it has plenary power “exercisable outside the purview of ordinary law” to meet the demand of justice. “The limits of Supreme Court when it chases injustice, is the sky itself,” it said, raising the bar for itself.

On the contrary, it said, it could intervene in any case, whether being heard at a High Court or any other Court, even without an appeal by any of the parties. That the woman did not complain to the Supreme Court was not a restriction on its powers of intervention, it added.

“Where there is manifest injustice, a duty is enjoined upon this Court to exercise its suo motu power by setting right the illegality in the judgment of the High Court as it is well settled that illegality should not be allowed to be perpetuated and failure by this Court to interfere with the same would amount to allow illegality to be perpetuated,” it said, ordering the case against the Sub-Inspector reinstated.