W. P. No. 12 of 1992

15th January, 1992

Petitioner Counsel: Anand Grover
Respondent Counsel: N. T. Saraf

Coroners Act (1871 as applicable in Maharashtra),S. 8,S. 8-A,S. 9,, Coroners Act (1871 as applicable in Maharashtra),S. 8,S. 8-A,S. 9,, Coroners Act (1871 as applicable in Maharashtra),S. 8,S. 8-A,S. 9,, Constitution of India,,,,Art. 20,Art. 226 Constitution of India,,,,Art. 20,Art. 226


K. SUKUMARAN, J. :- This writ petition questions a Coroner's action. The Coroner has directed the Petitioners to appear before him for the purpose of recording their statements. A direction of that nature is not per se an infliction of injury. The petitioners mount their attack from grounds of conscientious objection and constitutional provisions. The short question for consideration of this Court is whether the resistance has the support of law or legal principles.

2. It was a long time back - on 5th April 1983 - that Miss Prema Jeevandas died. Admittedly, she was possessed of fabulous fortunes. That circumstance, helpful during the life time of the person, can create complications after his or her worldly exit. It happened in the present case.

3. The deceased was not an invalid confined to bed for a long time. She was moving around with reasonable agility consistent with her advanced age. She had a fall in her house. At any rate, that was how the hospital authorities noted the case history. She did not linger long in the hospital room. She closed her eyes for ever on 5th April, 1983.

4. The Coroner appointed under the Coroners Act, 1814, was informed by the 3rd Respondent on 10-6-1983 about the death and about a suspected foul play. Thereafter it is a serious responsibility on the part of the Coroner to decide upon the future course of action. He called for the medical record and caused an enquiry to be made through the police. On perusal of Hospital records and report of the police enquiry, he was convinced that the circumstances under which the death occurred were 'rather unusual' and that an inquest should be held. The facts were reported to the Government and Government by order dated 20-7- 1984 directed the Coroner to conduct an inquest.

The Coroner thought of hearing the parties before he took a definite step. According to him, it was not due to compulsion of any legal provision but the motivation for demonstrating fair play or complying with the principles of natural justice. The parties who received notice raised a preliminary objection regarding the Coroner's jurisdiction to hold the inquest.

5. That led to the dilatoriness of the proceedings - a course totally inconsistent with the origin and evolution of the ancient office of Coroner. The Coroner ultimately passed an order on 19-4-1985.

6. The Coroner adverted to sections 8 and 9 of the Act, as amended by the Maharashtra State Legislature. He observed that the dead body was not available for view as it was cremated. It was accordingly noted that section 8A was the relevant section which could be invoked. He adverted to the requirements of section 8. The medical records were scrutinised by him, and considered carefully. He observed :

"No investigations appear to have been made to confirm the Diagnosis of Coronary infarct."

Nor was there any mention of the line of treatment anywhere in the records. according to him. Ultimately he concluded that the result of death remained unexplained and consequently the provisions of section 9 were attracted. He also took the view that the facts of the case "squarely fit in with the provisions of section 8 of the Act which conceives of cause of sudden death of which the cause is unknown. So disposal of the dead body in such cases is in contravention of the Coroner's Act."

7. That order was challenged in a Writ Petition-Writ Petition No. 1774 of 1985 before this Court by one of the Executors.

8. Nice questions of law were paraded before the Constitutional Court. Rule was issued. The case pended. Time did not tarry. A decade later, the Executor had his exit from the scene. No one else could be seen interested in pursuing that case. The Court was left with no alternate than to dismiss the writ petition for non-prosecution.

9. The dismissal of the Writ Petition removed the block in the way of Coroner's action. He then issued the impugned notice. It was then the turn of the petitioners to raise the objection over again by the present writ petition. They have come in, seeking to choke the Coroner and his action.

10. It is contended that the Coroner could act only in the limited contingencies pictured by sections 8, 8A and 9. These were the precise contentions which had been propelled earlier before the Coroner by the Executor. And they are the contentions on which precise findings have been entered by the Coroner - findings justifying his action and establishing his jurisdiction.

11. Counsel's vehemence was essentially on the absence of a finding. That submission, however, has no factual support nor any adventitious aid from attendant circumstances or other materials. The correct questions have been posed by the Coroner ; the materials had been adverted to carefully ; the entirety of the evidence and relevant circumstances have been assessed satisfactorily ; and the findings have been indicated fairly clearly. (Vide paragraphs from pages 5 to 7 of the Order of the Coroner being Exhibit 'Y' to the Petition). It is for the Coroner to be satisfied that there is reason to believe about the existence of the conditions referred to in the statutory provisions already alluded to. If the view taken by him is a possible one, this Court is not to sit in appeal over the conclusion so reached by him. In such a situation, the jurisdiction of this Court under Article 226, is not easily attracted. The factual matrix and findings are such that the case of the petitioners has only to be put on the mat.

12. The endeavour of counsel was almost to equate the office of the Coroner to that of a Tribunal with limited or conditional jurisdiction. That may not fit in with the historic origin of, or the traditional role attributed to, the Coroner, even from the days of King Alfred (noted for his brainy exercise and burning of the loaf). A Coroner's enquiry is in the nature of a duty, whether it be to enquire into a death, or the cause of death, or, arranging for a post mortem examination and the like. It is expected of him to be ready to do his duty in connection with his office at all points time. When there is a reasonable cause to suspect that a person has died a violent or an unnatural death, or has died a sudden death of which the cause is unknown, the Coroner must hold an inquest touching the death of that person. (See Halsbury's Laws of England, Fourth Edition, paragraphs 1034 to 1037). Courts do not approve of any inordinate delay on the part of a Coroner in attending to his duties. Vu Re Hull (1882) 689. A coroner who refuses to do his duty is liable to be removed for misbehaviour - (Re Ward (1861) 3De G. F & J. 700).

13. The nature and impact of the Coroner's report also should enter the reckoning of the Court, while considering the contention of the sort put forward in this Court. The report does not by itself result in any punishment or penalty. It only constitutes a material for other authorities to launch upon the course of action, and to set a direction of such action, on an evaluation of such report and other materials before them. That being so, hyper-technical considerations should not be permitted to defeat the larger objectives of the enactment, nor to stifle the functioning of the Coroner's office.

14. The essential scheme of the Act and the features of the Coroner's Office are happily available in the 'Foreword' written by the former Chief Justice of India Y. V. Chandrachud, on the Independence Day of 1989, to a Book captioned 'The Coroner' written by Dr. (Mrs.) Hemalata S. Patil. The passage reads :-

"The Coroner's Office is in a class of its own in that, the Coroner holds the inquiry but not a trial. There is no 'accused' before him to answer a charge as in a criminal trial nor is there an issue to be proved as in a civil case. And yet, the Coroner has the trappings of the Court. He conducts an inquest during the course of which, valuable evidence is generated which can afford useful assistance in the trial which takes place in the Court. The system of jury is abolished in India but the Coroner is an unique institution which performs its functions with the aid of a jury.

The contemporary relevance of the Coroner's findings consists in their impact on public opinion, in shaping that opinion by raising doubts or by silencing apprehensions in cases like those involving dowry deaths. Court cases take years to decide. The Coroner acts with commendable promptness while pronouncing the verdict as to whether the death is natural or unnatural. The Coroner has the freedom to devise his own procedure. He can, as the author points out, hold the inquest or dispose of the case on the basis of facts elicited in a preliminary inquiry. He can summon witnesses who are bound to appear before him. At the end of his inquiry, he sums up the case to the jury which returns a verdict. It is significant that, today, the Coroner's Court is the only court with whose functions and findings the public is actively associated. Participation by the people in the law's processes inspires great confidence in the administration of Justice."

15. The book is an encapsulation of the basic principles concerning the working of that important Office, with a feel and touch of a person who held the Office, Mr. S. R. Patil, over a long period. The exodus of about 300 families to Bombay each day, and the swelling of the population of the city are referred to. Some vital information on statistics is furnished on page 2 which reads :

"With every passing day, the number of violent, sudden and suspicious deaths is increasing resulting in greatly increased work load of the Coroner's Court. The figures available upto 1982, on the number of deaths reported to the Coroner each year, indicate that there were 380 deaths in 1902, 2100 in 1950 and around 15000 in 1982. This number may go up by several fold over the years to come."

The larger purposes served by Coroner are indicated at page 3. The following observations are particularly apposite in the context of the questions arising for consideration in the present case :

"The whole spirit and gist of the Coroner's Act is that all persons acquainted with the circumstances and cause of death of a deceased person, other than those implicated in crime in respect of such death, shall or may be examined on oath by the Coroner."

There is an indication about the remedy open to an affected party, at page 8. It is unnecessary for us to go into the experiences about the working of Dr. Patil about similar institutions in developed countries. The importance of the Office of the Coroner is highlighted in the observations contained at the end of page 44 which read :

"The Coroner has to perform his duties round the clock and has to be available to anybody at any time. Even when he is required to go on casual leave some times, he has first to make arrangements for the performance of his duties by one of the persons on the panel of Deputy Coroners."

The volume of the Coroner's work has increased with the expansion of the city and the explosion of the population, as observed at page 45 of the book :

"The reported unnatural deaths rose from a few hundreds per year to more than 15,000."

Observations relevant as regards a large number of deaths so taking place within the city, are seen at page 46 :

"Many attempts at concealment or misrepresentation of facts of death were brought to light at the inquest and the guilty were brought to book in subsequent proceedings of Criminal Courts. These revelations received wide publicity in the press and read like stories in crime thrillers. For the first time, the Coroner's Court and its functions came into public and governmental reckoning."

16. Counsel relied on the decision in writ petition No. 2235 of 1984, Mrs. Satrupi Tolaram Mirchandani and others vs. Coroner of Greater Bombay and others, decided on 25/26th April 1988. Some of the aspects which have been adverted above, had not been placed before the Court which rendered that decision. It is, however, unnecessary to consider larger aspects about the soundness of the strands of reasoning contained in that case in view of the factual existence in this case of findings forming the foundation for the action of the Coroner, and the continuance of the proceedings by him.

17. The facts of the case as discussed by the learned Judge in Mrs. Satrupi Tolaram Mirchandani's case are clearly distinguishable from those in the present case. We may also note the observations of the learned Judge reading :

"The Coroner must have reason to believe that circumstances justifying an inquest exist."

Under section 8 which has been extracted earlier, the relevant term is 'there is reason to suspect'. In relation to that part of the consideration and construction of section 8, the observations would, therefore, be inapposite.

18. Counsel for the petitioner endeavoured to demonstrate with reference to the medical certificate and other documents that the demise of the deceased was only a peaceful permanent repose, and that consequently there was no necessity to raise unnecessary dust and fumes at this distance of time. We are not satisfied that the events and circumstances are that simple. Even the certificate issued by the doctor does not infuse sufficient confidence to bar any further enquiry at the hands of the Coroner. The reference to an anterior ailment, and a continued blood pressure do not effectively efface certain staring signals. It is not for us, at this stage, to adorn the apron and attempt to dissect the materials with imperfect gadgets and inadequate equipments. The legal proceedings, are only to be permitted to take their own course. It will be unjust to put a spoke in the wheel, when the Coroner is acting competently and with full jurisdiction and in accordance with law.

19. Questions about possible infractions of Constitutional provisions including Article 20 are highly hypothetical at this stage and do not, therefore, arise for active consideration by this Court.

20. There are certain other factors which persuade us to decline interference at the instance of the Petitioners in the present case. As noted earlier, a finding of the Coroner indicating the basis on which he proposed to proceed, had been passed on 19-4-1985. The petitioner cannot ignore such an order, and should have, on their own, approached this Court within a reasonable time thereafter, if they were aggrieved. The present writ petition is filed only on 1-1-1992. They would appear to have satisfied themselves with the prosecution of the matter by one of the executors in the writ petition filed in 1985. In that case, they should have kept a vigil at the pendency and progress of those proceedings. The culmination of those proceedings in 1989, in the circumstances, should have alerted them to rush to action, if they were diligent and vigilant. They failed to exercise such a reasonable vigil expected of parties who seek to invoke the extraordinary jurisdiction of this Court. The intervening delay between 29-4-1989 and 3-1-1992 which is not satisfactorily explained, is yet another factor disentitling the petitioners to the aid of the Constitutional Court under its extraordinary jurisdiction.

21. There is absolutely no merit in the Writ Petition; it is accordingly dismissed.

Petition dismissed.