In a recent landmark judgment passed by the Hon’ble Supreme Court of India (Supreme Court) in Birla Corporation Limited v Adventz Investments and Holdings Limited & Ors, (Criminal Appeal Nos. 875, 876 and 877 of 2019) it was held that mere filing of documents before a judicial authority shall not simpliciter amount to theft. The Supreme Court has clarified that while replicating the contents of documents can amount to theft; in cases where such documents are replicated solely with the purpose of placing them before a judicial authority to substantiate a claim, no dishonest intention would be made out and thus, no offence of theft.

BACKGROUND

Birla Corporation Limited (Appellant) filed a complaint filed under Section 200 of Code of Criminal Procedure, 1978 (CrPC) before the Chief Metropolitan Magistrate, Kolkata (CMM) for offences under Sections 379, 403, 411 read with Section 120B of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) alleging that the Respondents (16 in total including individuals and companies), in connivance with each other, had filed photocopies of 54 documents before the Company Law Board (CLB) in an ongoing case of oppression and mismanagement and the Petition before the CLB was filed in another Suit by some of the Respondents.  The Appellant in its complaint before the CMM alleged that the photocopies of documents used were confidential in nature and were stored in the premises of the Appellant. According to the Appellant, the Respondents had misappropriated/ stolen such documents, which may further be categorized into two categories:

  1. Documents no. 1 – 26, which were stolen / misappropriated from the Appellant premises and were thereafter restored after creating photocopies (Category – I documents)
  2. Documents No. 27-54, which were stolen / misappropriated from the Appellant premises and continue to remain missing (Category – II documents)

The CMM after taking cognizance of the matter was of the view that there were sufficient grounds for proceeding against the Respondents and accordingly issued summons to all 16 Respondents.

Proceedings before the High Court

Aggrieved by the issuance of summons, the Respondents approached the High Court of Calcutta (High Court) under Section 482 of the CrPC for quashing the criminal proceedings. The High Court, while holding that the information contained in a document cannot be deemed to be  “movable property”, quashed the complaint qua Category - I documents which were in the possession of the Appellant. The ruling of the High Court was based on the premise that temporary removal of the documents for taking away the contents therein do not fulfil the ingredients of the offence of theft. In so far as Category – II documents were concerned, the High Court remitted the matter back to the CMM for trial.

Proceedings before the Supreme Court

Being aggrieved by the order of the High Court, both the Appellant and the Respondents filed an appeal before the Supreme Court. The Appellant sought for setting aside of the order of the High Court in so far as Category - I documents were concerned, the Respondents challenged the order on the ground of continuation of trial qua  Category – II documents.  

SUBMISSIONS ADVANCED BY THE APPELLANT

The Appellant sought to challenge the order of the High Court on the following grounds:

  • Where the CMM has taken cognizance of the offence, the High Court ought not to have substituted its views for the summoning order passed by the CMM qua the Category – I documents;
  • Relying upon the judgment in the case of Pyare Lal Bhargava v State of Rajasthan (AIR 1963 SC 1094), the Appellant alleged that the very act of moving documents out of the possession of the Appellant, would amount to theft and the loss may not only be caused due to permanent deprivation of the property, but shall include loss due to temporary moving of the property as well.

SUBMISSIONS ADVANCED BY THE RESPONDENTS

In rebuttal to the submissions advanced by the Appellant, the Respondents made the following submissions:

  • There was inadequate material before the CMM to satisfy the CMM to proceeding against the Respondents;
  • Production of copies of documents before any judicial authority would not amount to theft and the averments in the complaint do not attract the ingredients of theft;
  • The Complaint was vague and lacks specifications regarding the time and manner of commission of the alleged act of theft and as to how the same was detected;
  • Documents filed before CLB were with the sole objective of substantiating the claim and filing of documents before a judicial authority cannot be termed as theft or dishonest misappropriation;
  • Doctrine of vicarious liability is not applicable to offences under the IPC;

ANALYSIS BY THE SUPREME COURT

Based on the submissions advanced by the parties, the Supreme Court gave the following findings:

Enquiry under Section 202 of CrPC and application of mind by CMM

The Supreme Court while relying upon the previous decisions rendered in National Bank of Oman v Barakara Abdul Aziz & Anr [(2013) 2 SCC 488], Mehmood Ul Rehman v Khazir Mohammad Tunda & Ors [(2015) 12 SCC 420] and Bhushan Kumar & Anr v State (NCT of Delhi) & Anr [(2012) 5 SCC 424], reiterated that the scope of enquiry under Section 202 of the CrPC is limited to analysing whether the contents of the complaint and the allegations levied therein require issuance of process under Section 204 of the CrPC or not.

Further, while referring to the 2005 amendment to Section 202 of the CrPC, the Supreme Court stated that while the CMM is not required to pass a detailed order at the time of summoning an accused, the summoning order must disclose application of mind and sufficiency of grounds to issue process. The fact that some of the Respondents resided outside the jurisdiction of the CMM also mandated enquiry to be conducted before issuance of the summoning order. However, neither the complaint nor the statements of the Appellant’s witnesses disclosed material facts and therefore, the summoning order was passed without application of mind and was set aside.

Productions of documents before judicial authority does not amount to theft

The Supreme Court held that documents are movable property. Documents and replication of the documents thereon have physical presence and therefore, are certainly “corporeal property” and the same can be subject matter of theft. The Supreme Court clarified that for the commission of an offence of theft, even temporary removal of a document from the custody of its rightful owner may amount to theft as long as the dishonest intention to gain wrongful gain or cause wrongful loss exists.

In the given case, where the documents were mere production of photocopies before the CLB, cannot amount to theft as the same was done by the Respondents solely to substantiate their claims in law.

Production of documents could only be made in the manner prescribed under law

The Supreme Court stated that while sufficient provisions are provided under the Code of Civil Procedure and the Companies Act for production of documents; merely because a party failed to seek the production of such documents under specific provisions of a statute would not ipso facto amount to theft.  However, the manner in which these documents have been obtained may have an effect on their evidentiary value, which may only be decided by the Court before whom such documents are filed.

In light of the aforesaid findings, the Supreme Court was of the view that in the absence of specific averments as to how and when the alleged act of theft was carried out and in the absence of any  intention of the Respondents to gain wrongful gain or cause wrongful loss, by merely filing the documents before the CLB, the Respondents could not be charged with commission of the offence of theft and the complaint was rightly quashed as continuation of trail would amount to gross abuse of process of law.

Comment

The present ruling by the Supreme Court is a welcome judgment, in line with the recent judgments by the Supreme Court, reiterating the law on Section 202 of the CrPC. Additionally, the judgment also throws light upon the proposition that production of documents before a court of law in order to substantiate claims would not amount to theft. At the same time, the ruling ensures that a blanket protection is not granted, and the evidentiary value of such documents is decided based on the manner in which they are obtained.