Negotiable Instruments Act, 1881 – Section 139 and 138 – Cheque – Presumption in favour of holder – Manner of rebuttal of statutory presumption – Held, Presumption mandated by s. 139 includes existence of legally enforceable debt or liability – It is in nature of rebuttable presumption – Accused can raise a defence wherein existence of legally enforceable debt or liability can be contested – However, initial presumption favours the complainant – Reverse onus clause is included and the same is guided by the test of proportionality – Accused cannot be expected to discharge an unduly high standard of proof – Standard of proof for rebutting presumption is of `preponderance of probabilities’ – If accused is able to raise a probable defence which creates doubts about the existence of legally enforceable debt or liability, prosecution can fail.
Section 138 – Stop Payment – Applicability of – Held, Section 138 is applicable when cheque is dishonoured on account of `stop payment’ instructions sent by accused to his bank in respect of post-dated cheque, irrespective of insufficiency of funds.
IN THE SUPREME COURT OF INDIA
CRIMINAL APPELLATE JURISDICTION
(K.G. BALAKRISHNAN, CJI) (P. SATHASIVAM) AND (J.M. PANCHAL) JJ.
MAY 07, 2010
CRIMINAL APPEAL NO. 1020 OF 2010
[Arising out of SLP (Crl.) No. 407 of 2006]
Rangappa … Appellant Versus Sri Mohan … Respondent
K.G. Balakrishnan, C.J.I.
1. Leave granted.
2. In the present case, the trial court had acquitted the appellant-accused in a case related to the dishonour of a cheque under
Section 138 of the Negotiable Instruments Act, 1881
[Hereinafter `Act’]. This finding of acquittal had been made by the Addl. JMFC at Ranebennur, Karnataka in Criminal Case No. 993/2001, by way of a judgment dated 30-5-2005. On appeal by the respondent-complainant, the High Court had reversed the trial court’s decision and recorded a finding of conviction while directing that the appellant-accused should pay a fine of Rs. 75,000, failing which he would have to undergo three months simple imprisonment (S.I.). Aggrieved by this final order passed by the High Court of Karnataka [in Criminal Appeal No. 1367/2005] dated 26-10-2005, the appellant-accused has approached this Court by way of a petition seeking special leave to appeal. The legal question before us pertains to the proper interpretation of Section 139of the Act which shifts the burden of proof on to the accused in respect of cheque bouncing cases. More specifically, we have been asked to clarify the manner in which this statutory presumption can be rebutted.
3. Before addressing the legal question, it would be apt to survey the facts leading up to the present litigation. Admittedly, both the appellant-accused and the respondent- claimant are residents of Ranebennur, Karnataka. The appellant-accused is a mechanic who had engaged the services of the respondent-complainant who is a Civil Engineer, for the purpose of supervising the construction of his house in Ranebennur. The said construction was completed on 20-10- 1998 and this indicates that the parties were well acquainted with each other.
4. As per the respondent-complainant, the chain of facts unfolded in the following manner. In October 1998, the accused had requested him for a hand loan of Rs. 45,000 in order to meet the construction expenses. In view of their acquaintance, the complainant had paid Rs. 45,000 by way of cash. On receiving this amount, the appellant-accused had initially assured repayment by October 1999 but on the failure to do so, he sought more time till December 2000. The accused had then issued a cheque bearing No. 0886322, post-dated for 8-2-2001 for Rs. 45,000 drawn on Syndicate Bank, Kudremukh Branch. Consequently, on 8-2-2001, the complainant had presented this cheque through Karnataka Bank, Ranebennur for encashment. However, on 16-2-2001 the said Bank issued a return memo stating that the `Payment has been stopped by the drawer’ and this memo was handed over to the complainant on 21-2-2001. The complainant had then issued notice to the accused in this regard on 26-2-2001. On receiving the same, the accused failed to honour the cheque within the statutorily prescribed period and also did not reply to the notice sent in the manner contemplated under Section 138 of the Act. Following these developments, the complainant had filed a complaint (under Section 200 of the Code of Criminal Procedure) against the accused for the offence punishable under Section 138 of the Act.
5. The appellant-accused had raised the defence that the cheque in question was a blank cheque bearing his signature which had been lost and that it had come into the hands of the complainant who had then tried to misuse it. The accused’s case was that there was no legally enforceable debt or liability between the parties since he had not asked for a hand loan as alleged by the complainant.
6. The trial judge found in favour of the accused by taking note of some discrepancies in the complainant’s version. As per the trial judge, in the course of the cross-examination thecomplainant was not certain as to when the accused had actually issued the cheque. It was noted that while the complaint stated that the cheque had been issued in December 2000, at a later point it was conceded that the cheque had been handed over when the accused had met the complainant to obtain the work completion certificate for his house in March 2001. Later, it was stated that the cheque had been with the complainant about 15-20 days prior to the presentation of the same for encashment, which would place the date of handing over of the cheque in January 2001. Furthermore, the trial judge noted that in the complaint it had been submitted that the complainant had paid Rs. 45,000 in cash as a hand loan to the accused, whereas during the cross-examination it appeared that the complainant had spent this amount during the construction of the accused’s house from time to time and that the complainant had realised the extent of the liability after auditing the costs on completion of the construction. Apart from these discrepancies on part of the complainant, the trial judge also noted that the accused used to pay the complainant a monthly salary in lieu of his services as a building supervisor apart from periodically handing over money which was used for the construction of the house. In light of these regular payments, the trial judge found it unlikely that the complainant would have spent his own money on the construction work. With regard to these observations, the trial judge held that there was no material to substantiate that the accused had issued the cheque in relation to a legally enforceable debt. It was observed that the accused’s failure to reply to the notice sent by the complainant did not attract the presumption under Section 139 of the Act since the complainant had failed to prove that he had given a hand loan to the accused and that the accused had issued a cheque as alleged. Furthermore, the trial judge erroneously decided that the offence made punishable by Section 138 of the Act had not been committed in this case since the alleged dishonour of cheque was not on account of insufficiency of funds since the accused had instructed his bank to stop payment. Accordingly, the trial judge had recorded a finding of acquittal.
7. However, on appeal against acquittal, the High Court reversed the findings and convicted the appellant-accused. The High Court in its order noted that in the course of the trial proceedings, the accused had admitted that the signature on the impugned cheque (No. 886322, dated 8-2-2001) was indeed his own. Once this fact has been acknowledged, Section 139 of the Act mandates a presumption that the cheque pertained to a legally enforceable debt or liability. This presumption is of a rebuttal nature and the onus is then on the accused to raise a probable defence. With regard to the present facts, the High Court found that the defence raised by the accused was not probable. In respect of the accused’s stand that he had lost a blank cheque bearing his signature, the High Court noted that in the instructions sent by the accused to his Bank for stopping payment, there is a reference to cheque No. 0886322, dated 20-7-1999. This is in conflict with the complainant’s version wherein the accused had given instructions for stopping payment in respect of the same cheque, albeit one which was dated 8-2-2001. The High Court also noted that if the accused had indeed lost a blank cheque bearing his signature, the question of his mentioning the date of the cheque as 20-7-1999 could not arise. At a later point in the order, it has been noted that the instructions sent by the accused to his bank for stopping payment on the cheque do not mention that the same had been lost. However, the correspondence does refer to the cheque being dated 20-7-1999. Furthermore, during the cross-examination of the complainant, it was suggested on behalf of the accused that the complainant had the custody of the cheque since 1998. This suggestion indicates that the accused was aware of the fact that the complainant had the cheque, thereby weakening his claim of having lost a blank cheque. Furthermore, a perusal of the record shows that the accused had belatedly taken up the defence of having lost a blank cheque at the time of his examination during trial. Prior to the filing of the complaint, the accused had not even replied to the notice sent by the complainant since that would have afforded an opportunity to raise the defence at an earlier stage. All of these circumstances led the High Court to conclude that the accused had not raised a probable defence to rebut the statutory presumption. It was held that:
6. Once the cheque relates to the account of the accused and he accepts and admits the signatures on the said cheque, then initial presumption as contemplated underSection 139 of the Negotiable Instruments Act has to be raised by the Court in favour of the complainant. The presumption referred to in Section 139 of the N.I. Act is a mandatory presumption and not a general presumption, but the accused is entitled to rebut the said presumption. What is required to be established by the accused in order to rebut the presumption is different from each case under given circumstances. But the fact remains that a mere plausible explanation is not expected from the accused and it must be more than a plausible explanation by way of rebuttal evidence. In other words, the defence raised by way of rebuttal evidence must be probable and capable of being accepted by the Court. The defence raised by the accused was that a blank cheque was lost by him, which was made use of by the complainant. Unless this barrier is crossed by the accused, the other defence raised by him whether the cheque was issued towards the hand loan or towards the amount spent by the complainant need not be considered. …’
Hence, the High Court concluded that the alleged discrepancies on part of the complainant which had been noted by the trial court were not material since the accused had failed to raise a probable defence to rebut the presumption placed on him by Section 139 of the Act.
Accordingly, the High Court recorded a finding of conviction.
8. In the course of the proceedings before this Court, the contentions related to the proper interpretation of Sections 118(a), 138 and 139 of the Act. Before addressing them, it would be useful to quote the language of the relevant provisions: