The term ‘inquest’ has not been outrightly defined in the Code. The meaning of inquest is to seek legal or judicial inquiry to ascertain the facts. According to the Black’s Law Dictionary, the term ‘inquest’ means an inquiry conducted by the medical officers or sometimes with the help of a jury into the manner of death of a person, who has died under suspicious circumstances or has died in prison. The provisions relating to the inquest report are covered under Chapter XII of the Code.
An inquest report is made primarily to look into the causes of unnatural death. In the case of unnatural death, the circumstances have to be examined. The State owes a duty to its citizens to ensure their health and life. When a crime is committed, it is committed against the State. In the circumstances of unnatural death, it is the duty of the State to ascertain the cause of death and accordingly take further measures. This is the purpose of an inquest report, to establish facts that can be used to apprehend and punish the offender.
Relevant provisions under the code
Under Section 174 of the Code, the police have been empowered to enquire and report on cases of unnatural death. The first clause to the provision states that when an officer-in-charge of a police station or some police officer who is empowered by the State Government receives information that:
- A person has committed suicide;
- A person has been killed by another;
- A person has been killed by an animal;
- A person has been killed by machinery;
- A person has been killed by an accident;
- A person has died under such circumstances which raise a reasonable suspicion that some other person has committed an offense.
In the aforementioned cases, the police officer should immediately notify the nearest Executive Magistrate who is empowered to hold inquests. Further, he shall proceed to the place where the body of the deceased person is and in the presence of two or more respectable residents of the neighborhood, such police officer shall make an investigation and prepare a report.
The statements of the witnesses which are to be so recorded during the course of the investigation are within the inhibition of Section 162 of the Code. The statement recorded under this section cannot be used as a substantive piece of evidence. It can be only used to corroborate or contradict the person making it at the trial. But, there are no restrictions on the powers of the police officers from obtaining the signatures of the witnesses on their respective statements.
Under Section 174(2) of the Code, the report has to be signed by the investigating police officer and other persons, including those who concur therein. This report is then forwarded to the District Magistrate or the Sub-Divisional Magistrate.
Under Section 174(3) of the Code, special circumstances involving the death of a woman have been laid down. This was added by the Criminal Law (Second Amendment) Act, 1983.
In the cases where:
- Suicide has been committed by a woman within seven years of her marriage;
- The death of a woman within seven years of her marriage raises reasonable suspicion that some other person has committed an offense in relation to such a woman;
- The death of a woman within seven years of her marriage has taken place and any relative of such a woman has made a request on this behalf;
- There is a doubt regarding the cause of death;
- The concerned police officer for any other ancillary reasons considers it expedient to do so.
In the above situations, the concerned police officer shall forward the body to be examined, to the nearest Civil Surgeon or any other qualified medical personnel appointed for these purposes by the State Government. This discretion must be exercised in a prudent and careful manner. The forwarding of the body should only be done if there is no risk of putrefaction on the road, which would render the examination useless.
Under Section 174(4), the Magistrates have been listed down who are empowered to conduct inquests.
- Any District Magistrate;
- Any Sub-Divisional Magistrate;
- Any other Executive Magistrate
These Magistrates should be empowered to function in this capacity by, either the State Government or the District Magistrate.
Under Section 175 of the Code, the police officer who is investigating may, by an order in writing, summon two or more persons as mentioned above for the purpose of conducting the said investigation. This shall include any person who appears to be acquainted with the facts of the case. All such persons who are summoned are bound to attend and truly answer all questions asked. They can choose not to answer such questions which would have a tendency to expose them to a criminal charge or a penalty or forfeiture. Under clause 2 of the provision, it is mentioned that if the facts do not disclose a cognizable offense to which Section 170 of the Code applies, then such persons would not be required to attend a Magistrate’s Court.