Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Temporary removal of document for replication of content can be the subject of Theft, Supreme Court

The Supreme Court recently held that information replicated from a document even temporarily removed from its lawful custody, will fall within the purview of “movable property” and thus can be the subject matter of theft under Section 378 of the Indian Penal Code.
While deciding the point of law, a Bench of Justices R Banumathi and Subhash Reddyheld,
“Information contained in a document, if replicated, can be the subject of theft and can result in wrongful loss, even though the original document was only temporarily removed from its lawful custody for the purpose of extracting the information contained therein.”
As per the facts of the case, the appellant Birla Corporation had alleged the theft of fifty-four of its documents by the respondents, Adventz Investments and Holdings. A criminal complaint was filed by the appellant company alleging the commission of offences punishable under Sections 379, 403 IPC read with Section 120-B IPC. This complaint was filed in the midst of a complex web of litigation between the parties.
However, the Calcutta High Court had quashed the complaint. The High Court held that since originals of the documents were still in the custody of the complainant, taking away the information contained in such documents cannot be considered to be “movable property”. Thus, the temporary removal of the documents for taking information by itself cannot be the subject of the offence of theft. The appellant company then approached the Supreme Court in appeal.
The question before the Supreme Court was whether temporary removal of the documents and using them in the litigation pending between the parties would amount to theft.
The following requirements need to be established in order to make out a case of theft under Section 378 IPC:
  • Dishonest intention
  • To take away movable property
  • For wrongful gain
  • To cause wrongful loss
While interpreting whether the replication of information from a document would fall under the scope of movable property, the Court noted,
““Moveable property” is defined in Section 22 IPC which includes a corporeal property of every description. It is beyond doubt that a document is a “moveable property” within the meaning of Section 22 IPC which can be the subject matter of theft. A “document” is a “corporeal property”. A thing is “corporeal” if it has a body, material and a physical presence….
…The first Explanation to Section 29 IPC provides that it is immaterial by what means or upon what substance these are formed. This definition would include within its ambit photocopy of a document. As per Explanation No.2 of Section 29 IPC, letters, figures or marks shall be deemed to be expressed by such letters, figures or marks within the meaning of the Section. Such letters, figures or marks thus have a material and physical presence. Therefore, it can also be inferred that the said information would be deemed to fall within the purview of “Document” – a corporeal property.”
Therefore, the Bench held that the High Court was not right in holding that the replication of the documents or use of information therein is not moveable property and would not amount to theft.
However, the Court held that the replication of information in the facts and circumstances of the present case would not amount to theft. The Court held that there wasn’t sufficient evidence to conclude that there was a dishonest intention on the part of the respondent company to create wrongful gain for themselves.
“…it is to be seen in using the documents in the litigation, whether there is “dishonest intention” on the part of the respondents in causing “wrongful loss” to the appellant Company and getting “wrongful gain” for themselves. Respondents…have produced the photocopies of the documents No.1 to 54 in the CLB proceedings which were filed by them on the ground of oppression and mismanagement.
Merely because the respondents have produced the copies of the documents in the CLB proceedings, it cannot be said that the respondents have removed the documents with “dishonest” intention. Copies of documents are produced in support of the case of respondents No.1 to 5 and to enable the Court to arrive at the truth in a judicial proceeding involving alleged oppression and mismanagement in the affairs of the appellant Company by respondent No.17.”
The Court further held,
“When a bona fide dispute exists between the parties as to whether there is oppression and mismanagement, there is no question of “wrongful gain” to the respondents or “wrongful loss” to the appellant. In using the documents, when there is no dishonest intention to cause “wrongful loss” to the complainant and “wrongful gain” to the respondents, it cannot be said that the ingredients of theft are made out…
…How the respondents had access to the documents may be one thing. It may perhaps have bearing on the evidentiary value to be attached to the documents. But to say that it amounts to theft and seeking to prosecute the respondents is nothing but an attempt to cow down their defence in the litigation or to deprive the respondents of their valuable defence.”
Thus, the judgment of the High Court was set aside and the appeals were allowed.
In the same case, the Court also made an important ruling as regards Section 202 of the Code of Criminal Procedure. It was held that it is obligatory upon the Magistrate that before summoning the accused residing beyond its jurisdiction, he shall enquire into the case himself or direct the investigation to be made by a police officer for finding out whether or not there is sufficient ground to proceed against the accused.

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