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The Nexus between Section 156(3) and Judicial Cognizance: An Insightful Examination

There are two modes to begin an investigation into the commission of a crime: either a police officer files a First Information Report (FIR) about the commission of a cognizable offence and starts the investigation in accordance with Chapter XII of the Code, or a magistrate, competent to take cognizance under Section 190 may, in accordance with that Chapter XIV, order an investigation into the commission of a crime.

The term "cognizance" refers to knowledge or notice in general, and "taking cognizance of offence" refers to becoming aware of the alleged commission of an offence. The court must take cognizance of the offence before it can move forward with the trial. Taking cognizance is the application of the judicial mind; it doesn't involve any formal action. Rather, it happens as soon as a magistrate applies his mind to the suspected offence for the purpose of legal proceedings.

In the case of Ajit Kumar Palit versus State of West Bengal, AIR 1963 SC 765, honorable Apex Court held that:
"The "word cognizance" has no esoteric or mystic significance in criminal law or procedure. It merely means � become aware of and when used with reference to a court of judge, to take notice of judicially". In the case of Mohd. Khalid, (1995) 1 SCC 684, it was iterated that the word "Cognizance" indicates the point when a magistrate or a judge first takes judicial notice of an offence. This is the legal position regardless of the fact that the magistrate takes cognizance of an offence pursuant to a complaint or a police report or upon any information provided by any non-police person.

A magistrate is said to have taken cognizance of an offence under section 190(1)(a) only after he has applied his judicial mind to the contents of the complaint made before him. Moreover, such application of mind must be made for the purpose of proceedings under section 200 of the Cr.PC and provisions thereof. However, in cases where the magistrate has applied his judicial mind with a limited purpose of ordering an investigation under section 156(3) of the Cr.PC or for issue of any warrant for the purpose of investigation, then it cannot be said that the magistrate has "taken cognizance of offence".

It is a trite law and has been observed in multiple judicial pronouncements such as Devarapalli Lakshminarayana Reddy And Others Versus V. Narayana Reddy And Others (1976) 3 SCC 252; Mona Panwar V. High Court Of Judicature Of Allahabad, (2011) 3 SCC 496; M/S Sas Infratech Pvt. Ltd Versus The State Of Telengana & Anr, Criminal Appeal No. 2574/2024 (Special Leave Petition Crl. No. 2123/2024).

Before dwelving any further, it is imperative to develop an understanding about scope of section 190 and section 156(3) of the criminal procedure code. Section 190 deals with Cognizance of offence by the magistrate. It states:
  1. Subject to the provisions of this Chapter, any Magistrate of the first class, and any Magistrate of the second class specially empowered in this behalf under sub-section (2), may take cognizance of any offence:
    • Upon receiving a complaint of facts which constitute such offence;
    • Upon a police report of such facts;
    • Upon information received from any person other than a police officer, or upon his own knowledge, that such offence has been committed.
  2. The Chief Judicial Magistrate may empower any Magistrate of the second class to take cognizance under sub-section (1) of such offences as are within his competence to inquire into or try.

Section 156 of the Cr.PC deals with the power of the police officer to investigate any cognizable offence. It iterates:
  1. Any officer in charge of a police station may, without the order of a Magistrate, investigate any cognizable case which a Court having jurisdiction over the local area within the limits of such station would have power to inquire into or try under the provisions of Chapter XIII.
  2. No proceeding of a police officer in any such case shall at any stage be called in question on the ground that the case was one which such officer was not empowered under this section to investigate.
  3. Any Magistrate empowered under section 190 may order such an investigation as above-mentioned.
The interplay between these two sections has been addressed by the judiciary on multiple occasions.

Whenever any magistrate opts to take cognizance of any offence, then it can do so by adopting any of the following alternatives:
  1. He can review the complaint and, if he determines there are compelling reasons to proceed, he can immediately issue process to the accused. However, before doing so, he must abide by the requirements of section 200 and document the evidence of the complainant or those who witnessed the offence.
  2. The magistrate may direct the enquiry himself and postpone the issue of process for the time being.
  3. The Magistrate can postpone the issue of process and direct an enquiry by any other person or an investigation by the police.
If the magistrate, after application of his judicial mind to the statement of complainant and the witnesses thereof or as a result of the investigation and the enquiry ordered, is not convinced that there are sufficient grounds for proceeding he can dismiss the complaint. Also, where a Magistrate orders investigation by the police before taking cognizance under Section 156(3) of the Code and receives the report thereupon he can act on the report and discharge the accused or straightaway issue process against the accused or apply his mind to the complaint filed before him and take action under Section 190.

In the case of Anju Chaudhary V. State Of U.P., (2013) 6 SCC 384; Mona Panwar v. High Court of Judicature of Allahabad (2011) 3 SCC 496 : (2011) 1 SCC (Cri) 1181, it was observed that "While dealing with the application or passing an order under Section 156(3), the Magistrate does not take cognizance of an offence. When the Magistrate had applied his mind only for ordering an investigation under Section 156(3) of the Code or issued a warrant for the said purpose, he is not said to have taken cognizance.

It is an order in the nature of a pre-emptory reminder or intimation to the police to exercise its primary duty and power of investigation in terms of Section 151 of the Code. Such an investigation embraces the continuity of the process which begins with collection of evidence under Section 156 and ends with the final report either under Section 159 or submission of charge-sheet under Section 173 of the Code."

In the case of M/s SAS Infratech Pvt Ltd versus State of Telengana & Anr., Honorable apex court observed that "when the Magistrate in exercise of his judicial discretion directs investigation under Section 156(3) of Cr. P.C., he cannot be said to have taken cognizance of any offence. It is only when the Magistrate after applying his mind prefers to follow the procedure under Chapter XV of Cr.P.C. by resorting to Sections 200, he can be said to have taken cognizance of the offence.

Thus, from the above discussion it can be concluded that when a magistrate receives a complaint, it is not obligatory upon him to take cognizance of each facts of the complaint. This proposition gains strength from the language of the legislature which states "may take cognizance", which is discretionary in nature. Moreover, if upon perusal of the complaint, magistrate forms a view that the complaint discloses any cognizable offence, then the forwarding of the complaint to the police for investigation under Section 156(3) will be conducive to justice and save the valuable time of the Magistrate from being wasted in enquiring into a matter which was primarily the duty of the police to investigate, he will be justified in adopting that course as an alternative to taking cognizance of the offence, himself.

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