A mechanism to assess public satisfaction can be devised to assess police officers’ behaviour with the citizens
Words and phrases are strange creatures. Sometimes they wield so strong an influence on our minds that it is astonishing. One such phrase one frequently comes across in Pakistan’s police literature is ‘free registration of an FIR’. It always takes centre stage in a debate on police reforms.
Legal proceedings cannot be started until a formal report of the incident, called the ‘first information report,’ is lodged with the police. This is one of the main problems a common man faces at the police station because those at the police station either refuse to register the FIR or delay it on one pretext or the other.
Why is it so? Is this really so important? Is it really necessary in the interest of justice to turn every bit of information or every complaint into an FIR? Not at all, in my view. To me the notion or slogan of ‘free registration’ is not only too idealistic and impractical but also dangerous and fraught with serious implications. Here is why?
Mushtaq Ahmad Yousafi wrote once that the police divide the mankind into two groups: ones against whom an FIR has been registered and those against whom it is yet to be registered. So the first problem with free registration is the socio-cultural milieu in which the police and legal system operates.
It would be a travesty of justice to allow people with a tribal mentality to walk into the police station and get FIRs registered against their rivals to settle scores without a fair inquiry to ascertain if such an incident has occurred at all. Humour apart, if we allow this each one of us will have a criminal record sooner rather than later, particularly in the rural areas.
Then there are FIRs that are not totally baseless but exaggerated. These involve innocent people. There are also FIRs that seek to convert a dispute of civil nature into a criminal offence. Would it be fair to register FIRs freely and leave the innocent accused at the mercy of a slow judicial system?
Given the situation, the reaction of our political and judicial institutions should have been to rationalise the system of FIR registration to minimize its misuse. In a surprising development the courts, over the years, have started assigning so much sanctity to FIRs and the details of their contents that once an FIR is registered it becomes next to impossible for the accused to rid himself of this affliction, even if was totally false.
In 2018, the judgment passed by a seven-member bench of Supreme Court led by Justice Asif Saeed Khosa in Sughran Bibi Case (No 10842-P) tried to rectify the situation and mitigate the controlling effect of the FIRs. Though the judgment clearly enunciates that the FIR should be treated only as a version of the complainant and the investigator should find out the truth of the matter or should not commit himself prematurely to any view of the facts for or against any person yet the actual practice in the field remains almost unchanged.
In old times, an FIR was not treated with such reverence as it is today. Where circumstances were found doubtful, a simple report under Sec 157(2) CrPC was written and investigation was deferred till the time some more evidence surfaced. This procedure provided protection against false FIRs. Unfortunately, the practice has been abandoned in the light of certain judgments of superior courts to the effect that Sec 157(2) CrPC comes into operation only after the registration of an FIR.
Once an FIR has been registered it is not possible to defer or suspend the investigation. There is a procedure to undo the FIR i.e., formal cancellation with proof of lack of evidence which has to be verified/ agreed to by the local magistrate. They disagree in many cases, leaving innocent victims of such FIRs to suffer.
In many advanced countries a large number of incidents are reported to police upon which the police initiate an enquiry and formal investigation is undertaken only if there is some evidence of the occurrence of a crime. This position is nearly akin to the one under Sec 157(2) CrPC. After the formal investigation has been concluded it is sent before the court only after the prosecution is satisfied whether the evidence brought up is enough to stand trial, otherwise the case is dropped. In our system, which still depends largely on ocular evidence, the false witnesses make the cancellation job tougher.
More FIRs are seen as evidence of an increase in crime which is a cause of concern not only for an SHO but also officers above him. So SHO have an incentive not to register FIRs and the seniors might hush the matter up. More FIRs also mean extra work, more cases to solve, more accountability before seniors and more court appearances.
The role of corruption as an obstacle to free registration of FIRs cannot be over-emphasized. In recent years some senior officers have developed a new practice of seeking approval of seniors before registering an FIR in certain offences like fraud, misappropriation and default on payment for a cheque. This is basically done in good faith to prevent registration of false cases but results in complaints from the public’s point of view because of the delay it involves.
How can this system be overhauled to bring it in line with international best practices?
First, FIRs can be abolished altogether through a legislation and replaced with a simple report which could be made easily by the public using any of the mediums i.e., written application, verbal reporting, telephone or social media etc. The police should be bound to start an investigation and if sufficient evidence of the occurrence of a crime comes up a case should be sent to the court through prosecution.
If after initial investigation the evidence is found to be inadequate, the prosecution should drop the case.
There is a serious risk that the investigation officers may suppress or even destroy the evidence to favour the accused. To prevent this, the level of supervision will have to be enhanced i.e., the prosecutors will have to be associated with the process of investigation from the very outset and the Legal Branch at every DPO’s office will have to be strengthened to put all such cases under tight scrutiny and to report to the DPO any slackness or malafide found on the part of the investigation officer for initiation of departmental and criminal proceedings against delinquent officers.
In an alternative scenario, the FIR should be preceded by an enquiry like we have in Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) where a formal FIR is lodged only if sufficient evidence comes up in the process of enquiry. This will also settle the issue of arrests made without gathering sufficient evidence as in FIA cases an arrest can be made only after an FIR has been registered. This will also eliminate the need for writing FIRs with planted witnesses.
The issue of free registration of an FIR has been blown out of proportion because of the negative public perception it generates about the police. One of the major contributors is the category of offences which are actually matters of civil nature like property disputes, business transactions and family disputes. Such matters linger on in courts for years. Such cases bring a bad name to the police.
The best solution to this problem lies in devising an effective mechanism for Alternate Dispute Resolution (ADR). There can be two ways of doing this. Either the judiciary takes responsibility and the number of ADR courts is increased significantly to cater to the growing number of cases or a separate department of ADR may be established within the Police Department through proper legislation. This will eliminate the need for people to turn their civil matters into cognizable offences.
The official statistics and the system of performance evaluation based on them also need serious consideration. In the current system of measuring crime, the figures of a particular period are compared with the figures of corresponding period of the previous year and an increase or decrease in the figures reflects accordingly on the performance of the officers at all levels.
A better mechanism to assess public satisfaction can be devised and should assess police officers’ behaviour with the public, their attitude towards their work, their level of motivation and the overall discipline and conduct within the department.
This will not only bring a substantial improvement in the system of registering an FIR but will also go a long way in improving the image and public perception of police.
The writer is a senior police officer. He can be contacted at [email protected]