Supreme Court hears Petition against Penal Provisions under Customs, Excise and GST Laws

The Interplay between penal provisions of taxation laws and Criminal Procedure Code and Constitution are under dissection before the Apex Court
Supreme Court - Petition - Penal Provisions - Customs - Excise - GST Laws - taxascan

On May 1, 2024, the Supreme Court of India heard a group of petitions contesting penal clauses within several laws, including the Customs Act, Excise Act, and GST Act. These petitions argued that these penal provisions were incompatible with both the Code of Criminal Procedure ( CrPC ) and the Constitution. The focus of the arguments revolved around applying the CrPC to these legal frameworks and safeguarding individual freedoms.

The Supreme Court began hearing 281 petitions challenging the penal clauses of various laws, including the Customs Act, Excise Act, and GST Act, citing concerns about their alignment with the Code of Criminal Procedure ( CrPC ) and constitutional principles.

The hearing, chaired by Justices Sanjiv Khanna, MM Sundresh, and Bela M Trivedi, addressed a wide array of issues. During the proceedings, the Additional Solicitor General ( ASG ) pointed out that some petitions were not directly pertinent to the core issues and raised worries about authorities not receiving copies of certain petitions.

In response, the court instructed the ASG to list unrelated matters and underscored the importance of ensuring all relevant parties received the petitions. Senior counsels Vikram Chaudhri and Siddharth Luthra presented arguments, particularly on the Customs Act and the Central Goods and Services Tax Act, 2017.

Vikram Chaudhri’s arguments were centered on the Customs Act, highlighting the implications of recent amendments on the actions of Customs/Excise Officers concerning cognizable and non-cognizable offenses. Chaudhri contended that even if the legislature makes an offense cognizable, an FIR should still be filed under Section 154 of the CrPC. He stressed the precedence of the CrPC as the primary statute unless specifically excluded by a special statute, citing relevant court decisions to support his stance.

Justice Khanna emphasized that Customs and Excise officers’ primary role is adjudication and duty collection, not crime investigation, distinguishing them from police officers. Similarly, Siddharth Luthra reinforced these arguments, asserting that any curtailment of liberty must be grounded in statutory law, not executive directives, and underlining the significance of CrPC provisions in matters related to the Customs Act.

The proceedings took a turn when it was disclosed that Luthra’s represented petitioners had not been arrested, and a criminal complaint had been lodged before the relevant Magistrate. Consequently, the writ petition was withdrawn or deemed ineffective, and interim protection from arrest was extended for 15 days to allow the petitioners to seek redress from the trial court.

The bench also allowed the trial court to continue with criminal proceedings in that specific case, clarifying that interim protection did not preclude the Department of Customs from conducting investigations and filing criminal complaints. Luthra also raised concerns regarding the GST Act, questioning Parliament’s legislative authority, the application of CrPC provisions, and the procedural safeguards outlined in Chapter XII of the CrPC concerning the CGST Act.

In summary, the Supreme Court’s hearing on petitions challenging penal provisions within various laws has entailed comprehensive discussions regarding the compatibility of these laws with the Code of Criminal Procedure and constitutional tenets.

Senior counsels’ arguments delved into areas such as CrPC application, distinguishing between Customs/Excise officers and police officers, and procedural protections for individuals involved in criminal proceedings under these laws.

The dismissal of a writ petition, the extension of interim protection for petitioners, and the consideration of GST Act-related issues are significant developments in these proceedings.

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