I. Limitation as provided under the CrPC
The Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973 (“CrPC”) prescribes the period of limitation for a court to take cognizance of certain criminal offences, as follows:
- For offences that are punishable with fine only – 6 months;
- For offences that are punishable with imprisonment for a maximum term of 1 year – 1 year; and
- For offences that are punishable with imprisonment for a term exceeding 1 year, and upto 3 years – 3 years.
Upon expiry of the limitation period, a court cannot take cognizance of such offences, except where, on the basis of facts and circumstances, the delay is explained to the court or that the extension would be in the interests of justice. In such a case, the court extends the period of limitation and accordingly takes cognizance. There is no limitation period for offences punishable with imprisonment of more than 3 years.
It may also be noted that the meaning of the word “cognizance” has been derived from judicial precedents as it is not defined in the CrPC. A Magistrate is said to have taken “cognizance” when he applies his mind or takes judicial notice of an “offence” with a view to initiate proceedings in respect of such offence which is said to have been committed.
II. Commencement of the period of limitation
The period of limitation commences on the date of the offence, and where such date is not known, then it would be the earlier of the date on which the offence comes to the knowledge of the aggrieved party or a police officer.
III. When does the limitation period lapse
While the CrPC identifies instances as to when the limitation period commences, there is no provision which identifies as to when such period will conclude. In this context, courts had taken divergent views.
There were one set of decisions as per which, if the date on which cognizance taken by the Magistrate was not within the time period specified in Section 468 of the CrPC, then such cognizance would be invalid. In contrast, courts have also held that justice would be served only if the date of filing of a complaint were to be taken for the purposes of determining the concluding period of limitation, since otherwise the act of taking cognizance may inhere fluidity in the time taken for taking cognizance (for example due to non-availability of Magistrate, matter not taken up due to paucity of time, etc.).
The divergent views also came about in the context of how “period of limitation” was defined in the CrPC, i.e. “‘period of limitation’ means the period specified in section 468 for taking cognizance of an offence”.
A literal interpretation of “taking cognizance” would mean, that a Magistrate would be barred from taking cognizance even where an aggrieved party was diligent in filing a complaint within the limitation period provided in Section 468. For example, if a complaint is registered a week prior to the end of 1 year (in respect of an offence punishable with 1 year imprisonment); however cognizance is taken by a Magistrate post expiry of the 1 year period, it would result in the complaint being barred by limitation, though for no fault of the complainant.
IV. Supreme Court to the rescue
A constitution bench of the Supreme Court in Sarah Mathew v. Institute of Cardio Vascular Diseases considered the issue of limitation in criminal cases. It was held that the concluding date of the period of limitation for a Magistrate to take cognizance would be the date of filing of the complaint/ institution of prosecution and not the actual date on which a Magistrate takes cognizance. The constitution bench reasoned its decision based on what the legislature could have intended while inserting limitation period under Indian criminal law, which could not be to leave a diligent complainant remediless. The bench further noted that it would be unreasonable to take a view that the delay caused by a court in taking cognizance of a case would result in denial of justice to a diligent complainant.
V. Remaining issue
The above decision in Sarah Mathews pertained to a complaint case filed before the Magistrate. Even in a subsequent Supreme Court decision which followed Sarah Mathews, the facts pertained to a complaint case. However, in relation to a police case, the issue with respect to taking cognizance, i.e. whether the date of filing of a complaint with the police would be considered as the conclusion of the limitation period, or whether it would be the date of filing of charge-sheet was not clear.
As recent as on February 17, 2022, the Kerala High Court opined while interpreting Sarah Mathews that the date relevant for computing the period of limitation is the date of final report/charge-sheet. On the other hand, the Allahabad High Court held that the ‘institution of prosecution’ under the CrPC can be ‘by giving of information relating to commission of a cognizable offence under Section 154‘, and therefore it would be the date of the complaint or the registration of the First Information Report (“FIR”).
VI. Supreme Court’s interpretation of Sarah Mathews in March, 2022
In a recent case, titled Amritlal v. Shantilal Soni & Ors., the Supreme Court dealt with the issue of conclusion of period of limitation in the context of a police case.
a. Facts in Brief
The facts in brief are that FIR was lodged against the accused persons pursuant to a complaint filed after two years and nine and a half months from the date of commission of the offence. This was in context of an offence punishable with imprisonment for a term exceeding 1 year, and upto 3 years (for which a 3 year limitation period is prescribed). The police filed charge-sheet after four months from the date of the FIR. Accordingly, three years had passed by this time and the Magistrate took cognizance a few days thereafter and subsequently rendered the order on charge.
b. Issue for consideration
This order was challenged by the accused persons on the ground that the Magistrate was barred by Section 468 of the CrPC from taking cognizance since 3 years had elapsed. While the lower court dismissed the petition, however, the accused persons were successful in an appeal before the High Court of Madhya Pradesh (Indore Bench) which was of the opinion that taking of cognizance by the Magistrate was barred by limitation. The said High Court order was challenged before the Supreme Court.
c. What the Supreme Court held
The Supreme Court at the outset made it clear that the decision of the High Court deserved to be set aside on the ground that the same was contrary to the ruling of the constitution bench in Sarah Mathews. Accordingly, it went on to hold that for the purpose of computing the period of limitation under Section 468 of the CrPC, the relevant date would be the date of filing of the complaint or the date of institution of prosecution, and not the date on which the Magistrate takes cognizance.
VII. Key Takeaways
As we understand, Section 467 of the CrPC identifies 2 different stages in context of an offence, which a Magistrate is required to consider for the purposes of taking cognizance (the provision states – period of limitation for taking cognizance). In other words, taking cognizance is subsequent to and different from the (commencement and) conclusion of the period of limitation.
Stage 1 would be the date of commission / knowledge of the offence, which is the commencement of the period of limitation and Stage 2 which is the conclusion of period of limitation would be the date of filing of the complaint / initiation of prosecution.
At the time when a Magistrate is to consider whether he / she is barred from taking cognizance (which is a subsequent Stage 3), he / she is required to determine if the initial two stages fall within the time period prescribed under Section 468 of the CrPC. If not, and if the delay is not condoned, then the Magistrate would be barred from taking cognizance. In this manner, the constitutional rights of a complainant would stand secured for the reasons stated in Sarah Mathews.
Further, so as to make out a case for seeking extension of period of limitation where the complaint is registered beyond the prescribed period, we believe that at the stage of making the complaint itself / in the complaint, sufficient reasoning as to the facts and circumstances that led to the delay (in filing of the complaint) should be given. This may assist the complainant later when the Magistrate is adjudicating on its extension, as the investigation authorities in their preliminary investigation may also authenticate the veracity of this aspect.
 Section 468 of the CrPC.
 Sarah Mathew v. Institute of Cardio Vascular Diseases; (2014) 2 SCC 62.
 Section 469 of the CrPC.
 Krishna Pillai v. T.A. Rajendran; 1990 Supp SCC 121.
 Japani Sahoo v. Chandra Shekhar Mohanty; (2007) 7 SCC 394; pp. 46, 49.
 Supra 2.
 Upholding the view taken in Japani Sahoo (Supra 5) and overruling the interpretation provided in Krishna Pillai (Supra 4).
 Supra 2.
 Facts in the High Court decision (2002) 2 MWN (Cri) 238.
 Darshan Singh Saini v. Sohan Singh & Anr.; (2015) 14 SCC 570.
 Rudrasenan v. State of Kerala ; 2022 SCC OnLine Ker 917, Also see Shikhil Katoch v. State of Himachal Pradesh; 2020 SCC OnLine HP 2693 where the Himachal Pradesh High Court took a similar view.
 Rajitram Shukla and Others v. State of U.P & Anr.; (2022) 118 ACC 183; The same position was ascribed to by the Karnataka High Court in Precilla D’Souza v. State of Karnataka; 2021 SCC OnLine Kar 12548.
 2022 SCC OnLine SC 266.