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Unravelling The Spot Panchnama (Inquest Report) Under Section 174 of CrPC

The word panchnama, although not defined anywhere in criminal code, but has a significant value as it is used in almost all the police stations and criminal courts across India. panchnama, is nothing, but an Inquest report by Police (in some cases by Magistrate) as mandated by section 174 of Code pf Criminal Procedure.

The sole objective of this report is to find out the cause of death. The fair investigation in any criminal case is very much embedded in article 21 of constitution. The panchnama or inquest report is preliminary step towards that fair investigation. There are various concepts and theories about the objective, role, procedure, evidentiary value and impact of non-filing of inquest report. The authors take this occasion to unravel the correct approach and settled position of law regarding panchnama (Inquest report).

Technically, Inquest report is explained in section 174 of CrPC. Although, under section 176 of the code, there is provision of magisterial enquiry which is an extension of section 174, but the scope of this article is limited to Inquest report only.

The relevant portion of section 174 is reconstructed herein for reference and better understanding to readers:

  1. When the officer in charge of a police station or some other police officer specially empowered by the State Government in that behalf receives information that a person has committed suicide, or has been killed by another or by an animal or by machinery or by an accident, or has died under circumstances raising a reasonable suspicion that some other person has committed an offence, he shall immediately give intimation thereof to the nearest Executive Magistrate empowered to hold inquests, and, unless otherwise directed by any rule prescribed by the State Government, or by any general or special order of the District or Sub- divisional Magistrate, shall proceed to the place where the body

    of such deceased person is, and there, in the presence of two' or more respectable inhabitants of the neighbourhood, shall make an investigation, and draw up a report of the apparent cause of death, describing such wounds, fractures, bruises, and other marks of injury as may be found on the body, and stating in what manner, or by what weapon or instrument (if any); such marks appear to have been inflicted.
     
  2. The report shall be signed by such police officer and other persons, or by so many of them as concur therein, and shall be forthwith forwarded to the District Magistrate or the Sub- divisional Magistrate.
     

From the language of above-mentioned provision, it is clear that as and when SHO or any police officer on that behalf, receives information of any death in his jurisdiction, he shall immediately proceed to the place of dead body after intimating Executive magistrate. He shall make a report explaining the cause of death in presence of two or more inhabitants of that area.

The scope of inquest report is very limited as the main objective is merely to ascertain whether person is died unnatural death or under unnatural circumstances, and if so, then what are the causes of death. All other information like how and by whom the person was assaulted, is irrelevant and alien to section 174 of CrPC.

According to Cambridge dictionary inquest means, "an official process that tries to find out how somebody died". As per Black Law dictionary, the term Inquest is an enquiry conducted by the medical officers or sometime with the help of jury into the manner of death of a person, who has died under suspicious circumstances or has died in prison.

It can be safely inferred from section 174 that an inquest is an official public enquiry, led by a police officer (and in some cases involving a magistrate) into the circumstances of a sudden, unexplained or violent death. So, the police, can make findings on-the identity of the deceased person, how, when and where the death occurred and the circumstances surrounding the death.

The police officer who proceeds for the purpose of inquest report has following responsibilities at the crime scene:
  • Pronounce death and examine at what time the death was occurred.
  • Investigation of scene.
  • Take custody of body and make essential identifications of deceased.
  • Immediately draw spot panchnama.
  • Intimation to family members.
The panchnama should be drawn at the incident site. Supreme Court noted in case of K.P.Rao vs Public Prosecutor (1975) that officer holding an inquest
on dead body must hold the proceeding on "SPOT"

A three judge bench of Hon'ble Supreme Court has given following guidelines to all the state governments in respect of composition of Inquest report in the suo moto case of In Re: To Issue Certain Guidelines regarding Inadequacies and Deficiencies in Criminal Trial Vs State of Andhra Pradesh & Ors in April 2021:
  1. A site plan of the place of occurrence of an incident shall be appended by the Investigating Officer to the scene mahazar or spot panchnama.
  2. The site plan shall be prepared by the Investigating Officer by hand, and shall disclose at the place of occurrence:
    • The place where the body (or bodies) was / were found.
    • The place of material exhibits and/or weapons.
    • Blood stains and/or body fluids had fallen.
    • The place where bullet shells, if any, were found or have caused impact.
    • The source of light, if any.
    • Adjoining natural and man-made structures or features such as walls, pits, fences, trees/bushes, if any.
    • Elevation of structures and their location.
       
  3. The preparation of this sketch by the Investigating Officer shall be followed by a scaled site plan prepared by police draftsman, if available, or such other authorized or nominated draftsman by the State Government, who shall prepare the scaled site plan after visiting the spot. iv. The relevant details in the mahazar or panchnama shall be marked and correlated in the said site plan.

Inquest Report and Post-mortem Report:

Although, the objective of inquest report and post-mortem report is same, but there is difference between procedure and methodology of two. The inquest report is primarily aimed at finding out the nature of injuries and the apparent cause of death, but in post-mortem doctor examines the dead body with medico-legal point of view.

The post-mortem report comprises the details and nature of injuries ascertained through strict scientific examination. Section 174 CrPC was amended in 1983 by inserting the sub-section (3) which empowered the police officer to send the dead body to nearest civil surgeon for the purpose of post-mortem.

Primarily, the objective of this amendment was to deal with cases of dowry death but it empowered the police to get the body examined by doctor, when he has doubts regarding cause of death.

So now, it is possible that, there may be contradiction between inquest and post-mortem report on cause of death. But in such scenario, courts have given preference to post-mortem over inquest report being the former is done by an expert. Apex court in the case of Javed Abdul Rajjaq Shaikh vs State of Maharashtra (2011) held that:

"When there is difference of injuries in inquest panchnama and post-mortem report, post-mortem will prevail over inquest panchnama because panch (witness) are not experts like doctors. Accused cannot get benefit of inconsistencies."

Evidentiary Value of Inquest Report:

Inquest panchnama is a mere fact-finding report about cause of death during course of investigation. It is not such a substantial piece of evidence on the basis of which conviction can be brought home. In catena of judgments, apex court has ruled that inquest panchnama is not an evidence but it can be used for some other purposes like contradiction of prosecution theory by defence or contradiction of witnesses of panchnama if they are called in witness box on behalf of prosecution.

As we know, under section 175 CrPC, investigating officer of proceeding has the power to call witnesses to inquest report (those two or more respectable persons who signed the panchnama) and may record their statements. Such witnesses shall be bound to appear and answer truly all questions other than questions the answers to which would have a tendency to expose them to a criminal charge or to a penalty or forfeiture.

Supreme Court in the case of Yogesh Singh vs Mahaveer Singh (2016), observed that inquest panchnama is just part of an investigation proceeding unlike inquiry or trial. It is not a substantive piece of evidence and it can only be used for testing the veracity of witnesses on Inquest.

Similarly, in Tahsildar Singh Vs. State of Uttar Pradesh (1959) top court observed that "At the most, it can be used only as a previous statement to corroborate or contradict the person making it, at the trial."

Same view was taken by Supreme Court in Mamta Vs. State of Madhya Pradesh (2015), and held that:
". the statement of a witness recorded by the investigators during the inquest under Section 174 would be within the inhibition of Section 162. Behind this provision is a wholesome rule of public policy that witnesses at the trial should be free to tell the truth unhampered by anything they might have been made to say to the police. The statement under Section 174 of cannot be used as a substantive piece of evidence."

In Rhea Chakraborty vs The State of Bihar (2020), top court of India, tried to distinct between the investigation under section 174 and 154 of CrPC.

Court held that "the proceeding under Section 174 CrPC is limited to the inquiry carried out by the police to find out the apparent cause of unnatural death. These are not in the nature of investigation, undertaken after filing of FIR under Section 154 CrPC. Two inquest reports in the same case are not maintainable, because there is no rule prescribed under the code."

Impact of Omissions in Inquest Panchnama:

As discussed above, the inquest panchnama is only a part of investigation and meant only to identify the cause of death. It may be termed as a sub-specie of post mortem report made by any non-scientific person. Legislation never intended that the inquest report or panchnama under section 174 of CrPC should have each minute details regarding the incident, accused or victim. The criminal courts in India have also emphasised that the lapses in inquest report are bound to happen and they cannot be fatal to prosecution case.

In Rhea Chakraborty (supra), Supreme Court ruled that errors made during the proceeding under section 174 is not fatal to the story of prosecution but at the same time, it can be considered as a dubious incident.

In Shakila Khader vs Nausher Gama (1975), the accused argued that the name of eye witness was not mentioned in inquest report and therefore testimony of such witness should not be relied upon. But court held that inquest report under section 174 CrPC is concerned to establish the cause of death only and mere omission of name of any witness is not fatal to testimony of that witness.

Similarly, in case of Eqbal Baig vs State of Andhra Pradesh (1987), it was held that non-mentioning of name of eye witness in inquest report is not a ground to reject the testimony of such eye witness. Court further observed that, even the absence of name of accused in inquest report cannot lead to an inference that he was not present at the time of commission of offence.

There is no requirement in law under 174 CrPC that the details of FIR, names of accused or eye witness must be mentioned. Neither the gist of statement of witness is mandatory to mention in inquest report nor it is required to be signed by eye-witnesses.

From, the discussion above, it can be concluded that, though Inquest panchnama has a major role to play in criminal justice system, but its uses are limited only to the perspectives designed by legislation. The inquest panchnama should be restricted to the objectives for which it was framed. It is not evidence in itself.

The inquest panchnama aids the court to come to a conclusion about nature of injuries and cause of death of victim and therefore, the concerned police officer should report all the required details of injuries, weapons, cause and nature of injuries, witnesses or any other relevant details. It is also suggested that the police officer should be trained and regular workshops should be conducted in order to teach them basics of human anatomy.

If the inquest report is properly made then it will help to meet the end of justice. The culprits should not be allowed to take benefits of poorly framed inquest report and this can be achieved only if lapses in such reports are reduced to minimum.

Written By: Nirmala Singh is Masters in Law & a Serving Delhi Police Officer

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