While several provisions in Chapter XIV of the Code of Criminal Procedure use the word ‘cognizance’, there is no definition of the word explicitly mentioned. The meaning has been defined by several judicial statements over the years.
To begin with, let’s understand the English meaning of the phrase ‘taking cognizance of’. According to leading global dictionaries, the phrase means ‘to notice or give attention to something. However, in a court of law, or in reference to a Judge, it means to take notice of something judicially. In general practice, to take notice of an offence for initiation of proceedings under Section 190 is called ‘taking cognizance of’.
The earliest definitions
The first step towards any trial is to take cognizance. The earliest verdict on the topic was by the Apex court during the R.R. Chari vs. State of U.P.AIR 1951 SC 207. The court herein stated, “Taking cognizance does not involve any formal action or indeed action of any kind but occurs as soon as a Magistrate as such applies his mind to the suspected commission of an offence.”
A deeper meaning was later inferred when in 1971 Darshan Singh Ram Kishan vs. State of Maharashtra considered Section 190 of CrPC and observed, “Cognizance takes place at a point when a magistrate first takes judicial notice of an offence. This is the position whether the magistrate takes cognizance of an offence on a complaint, or on a police report, or upon information of a person other than a police officer.”
Who can take cognizance of offence?
By now, it must clear to one and all that taking cognizance is a prerequisite for a trial. So how does a citizen initiate criminal proceedings? There are two means for doing the same:
- Lodge an FIR of a cognizable offence before the Station House Officer;
- Lodge a complaint of the offence (cognizable or not) before a first class (or duly empowered second class) Judicial Magistrate.
Guidelines to take cognizance have been provided under Section 190 to Section 199 of CrPC. As per Section 190 (1) a Magistrate may take cognizance of an offence:
- Upon receiving a complaint;
- Upon a police report;
- Upon information received through any other person or his own knowledge.
In Narayandas Bhagwandas Madhavdas vs. The State of West Bengal AIR 1959 SC 1118, after referring to the aforementioned Section, it was observed that there is no charm or mystic secret in the expression ‘taking cognizance of’ and it simply meant ‘judicial application of the mind of the Magistrate to the facts mentioned in the complaint with a view of taking further action’.
Magistrate is not bound to take cognizance when he receives a complaint
A quick look at the case of D. Lakshminarayana Reddy and Others vs. V Narayana Reddy and Others AIR 1976 SC 1672 would answer the question well. The use of the words ‘may take cognizance’ at once frees the Magistrate from the compulsion of taking notice of an offence legally. Alternatively, if the crime in question is something that was primarily the police’s duty to investigate, the Magistrate can take cognizance of it and can be justified as per s.156(3).
Taking cognizance does not equate to issuance of process
People tend to confuse the two terms in an inevitably grave manner. Taking cognizance is perhaps the first step of a trial where the Magistrate puts his mind to the fact that a crime has been committed and should be investigated whereupon the offenders should be punished.
Issuance of process though, is an ensuing period whence the magistrate decides to proceed to sentence offenders against whom a prima facie case has been made out. This difference is very clearly marked in the judgement of State of Karnataka v. Pastor P. Raju, 2006 (6) SCC 728, 734, para 13: 2006 (3) SCC (Cri) 179.In the end, it is clear that ‘taking cognizance’ does not involve a formal action. As soon as the Magistrate starts working on building the case of an offence reported, the phrase is in action. A couple of things to remember here is that cognizance is taken of an offence and not the offender, and is a sine qua non or condition precedent for a trial to proceed.