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Whether a Customs Officer is a Court or Tribunal ?

The Supreme Court of India on 13/08/1969 in Hira H. Advani Vs. State of Maharashtra, AIR 1971 SC 44 : 1970 (1) SCR 821 : (1970) 1 SCC 509 held that a Customs Officer is not a court and therefore statements made before him do not attract the provisions of s. 132 of the Evidence Act or Art. 20(3) of the Constitution.

Customs Officer

A bench comprising of G.K. Mitter, S.M. Sikri and K.S. Hedge; JJ. observed that if the Legislature intended that the inquiry under s. 171-A was to be considered a judicial proceeding not within the narrow limits therein specified but generally, it could have used suitable words to express its intention.

Although this Court gave a wider meaning to the expression ‘judicial proceeding” in Lalji Haridas’ ease there is nothing in that judgment to warrant a still wider interpretation of that definition.

the Judgment said.

Indian Oaths Act (10 of 1873)

The Oaths Act had no application to the present case. The preamble to the Act shows that it was an Act to consolidate the law relating to judicial oaths, affirmations and declarations. The argument that a customs officer received evidence within the meaning of s. 4 of the Act and therefore a person appearing before him was a witness under s. 5 could not be accepted.

Section 7 of the Act shows that oaths under the Act had to be administered according to such forms as the High Court might prescribe. The Customs Officer have nothing to do with such forms and there was nothing on record to show that in the present case any oath was administered to the person making the statement. In Maqbool Hussain’s case this Court stated expressly that the Customs Officers were not authorised to administer oath and the position was ‘not altered by the insertion of s. 171-A in 1955.

Evidence Act (1 of 1872)

Our law of evidence which is a complete code does not permit the importation of any principle of English common law relating to evidence in criminal cases to the contrary. There is no scope for introduction of a rule of evidence in criminal cases unless it is within the four corners of s. 132 or some other provision of the Evidence Act.

Commissioners of Customs and Excise v. Harz, [1967] 1 All. E.R. 177 Explained

The decision of the House of Lords in Harz’s case does not support the proposition that under s. 171-A the right of interrogation was limited to questions the answers where to may not incriminate the person interrogated. The section expressly authorises officers off customs to secure the attendance of persons to give evidence or produce documents or things relevant in any enquiry in connection with smuggling of goods. A limit is set to the right to obtain production in sub-s. (2) of the section and sub.ss. (3) and (4) lay down that’ if a person summoned does not state the truth in such an examination he may be proceeded against under 8. 193 I.P.C. for giving false evidence.

In view of the decision of Apex Court in Nishi Kant v. State Bihar, [1969] 2 S.C.R. 1033, the argument that statements of the accused under s. 171-A(4) should be considered only as a whole could not be accepted. The inculpatory position of a statement can be accepted if the exculpatory portion is found to be inherently improbable. In the present case the explanations contained in the statement were rejected by the courts below for ‘reasons given There was no reason for this Court to take a different view.

The High Court rightly held that an office copy of a premium debit note maintained by an insurance company in the usual course of its business and attached to the office copy of the insurance policy was admissible in evidence under s. 114 (Illustration f) of the Evidence Act. No objection could be allowed to be raised on the ground that there was no proof of the preparation of the original premium note.

The evidence of an appraiser of customs off long experience regarding the C.I.F. value of goods could not be rejected merely on the ground that his opinion was arrived at after making enquiries in the market and was therefore only hearsay. His testimony as to the valuation based on his knowledge of the market and experience had remained unshaken in cross-examination and was rightly relied on by the High Court.

Facts of the Case

The appellants and two others were prosecuted on a complaint by the Assistant Collector of Customs, Bombay for the offence of conspiracy and substantive offences punishable under s. 167(81) of the Sea Customs Act and s. 5 of the Imports and Exports (Control) Act, 1947.

The complaint was that all the accused knowingly and with intent to defraud the Government of India of duty payable on the import of goods and/or to evade the prohibitions and restrictions for the time being in force under or by virtue of the Sea Customs Act and of the Imports & Exports (Control) Act, 1947 relating to the said import entered into a conspiracy in Bombay and other places during the period commencing from August 1958 and August 1959 to acquire possession of and to be concerned in carrying, removing and concealing and otherwise dealing with prohibited and restricted goods in very large quantities of high C.I.F. value.

The Presidency Magistrate held in regard to the appellants that they were parties to a conspiracy as alleged by the prosecution and convicted them under s./20-B Indian Penal Code ‘read with s. 167(81) of the Sea Customs Act and s. 5 of the Imports and Exports (Control) Act, 1947. The accused were also convicted of certain other charges individually framed against them.

The High Court dismissed the appeal against the order of the Presidency Magistrate. The appellants were however, granted a certificate under Art. 134(1)(c) of the Constitution. The main legal question that fell for consideration by this Court was whether the statements made by the accused- appellants before the Customs Officer were inadmissible in evidence in view of the provisions cf s. 171-A. of the Sea Customs Act, s. 132 of the Evidence Act and Art. 20(3) of the Constitution.

Questions raised on behalf of the appellants in their individual cases regarding the admissibility of certain items of evidence and circumstances against them also arose for consideration.

Case Law Reference

  1. Amba Lal v. Union of India & Ors. [1961] 1 S.C.R. 933
  2. Commissioners of Customs and Excise v. Harz. (1867) 1 All. E.R. 177
  3. Indo-China Steam Navigation Co. Ltd. v. Additional Collector of Customs, [1964] 6 S.C.R. 594
  4. Lalji Haridas v. State of Maharashtra, [1964] 6 S.C.R. 700
  5. Maqbool Hussain v. State of Bombay, [1953] S.C.R. 730
  6. Ragina v. Benjamin Scott, 169 E.R. 909
  7. Sris Chandra Nandi v. Rakhalananda (deceased), I.L.R. 1941 Calcutta 468
  8. St. Alubvn v. Attorney-General, (1951) 2 A.E.R. 478, 498
  9. Thomas Dana v. State of Punjab, [1959] Supp. 1 S.C.R. 274
  10. Queen Empress v. Tulla, 12 Bombay 36.
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