The Criminal Procedure Code, 1973 does not define the term “Cognizance”, for whose meaning Black’s Law Dictionary can be referred which defines it as “Taking of judicial or authoritative notice.”
The position has been brilliantly explained by the Honourable Supreme Court in the landmark judgement of Devarapalli Lakshminarayana Reddy and Ors. vs. V. Narayana Reddy and Ors. (1976) “This expression has not been defined in the Code. But from the scheme of the Code, the content and marginal heading of Section 190 and the caption of Chapter XIV under which Sections 190 to 199 occur, it is clear that a case can be said to be instituted in a Court only when the Court takes cognizance of the offence alleged therein. The ways in which such cognizance can be taken are set out in Clauses (a), (b) and (c) of Section 190(1). Whether the Magistrate has or has not taken cognizance of the offence will depend on the circumstances of the particular case including the mode in which the case is sought to be instituted and the nature of the preliminary action, if any, taken by the Magistrate. Broadly speaking, when on receiving a complaint, the Magistrate applies his mind for the purposes of proceeding under Section 200 and the succeeding sections in Chapter XV of the Code of 1973, he is said to have taken cognizance of the offence within the meaning of Section 190(1)(a). If, instead of proceeding under Chapter XV, he has in the judicial exercise of his discretion, taken action of some other kind, such as issuing a search warrant for the purpose of investigation, or ordering investigation by the police under Section 156(3), he cannot be said to have taken cognizance of any offence.”
A similar view of Patna High Court under Justice B.P. Jha in the seminal judgement of Ramlakhan Mahtovs. Rameshwar Mahto and Ors(1974) further defines “the word 'cognizance', (as already stated above) means 'to apply mind for the purpose of taking cognizance in respect of the facts constituting the offence'.”
Also, in the case of Shatrughna Prasad Sinha vs. Rajbhau Surajmal Rathi and Ors. (1996) the Honourable Supreme Court further explained that, “Taking cognizance of the offence would include the intention of the Magistrate of initiating judicial proceedings against the offender in respect of that offence or taking steps to see whether there is any basis for initiating judicial proceedings or for other purpose”.
Also, in the case of K.S. Thimmappa Rai vs. A.R. Sadanada (1997), the Karnataka High Court has precisely defined the moment when it can be said that the Magistrate has taken cognizance of a case. The Court had observed that “In this case the Magistrate has proceeded to record the sworn statement of the complainant. Under that circumstance, it is deemed that the Magistrate has taken cognizance of the case.”
Further, in the case of Devarapalli Lakshminarayana Reddy and Ors. vs. V. Narayana Reddy and Ors. (1976), the Honourable Supreme Court observed that “When a Magistrate receives a complaint, he is not bound to take cognizance if the facts alleged in the complaint, disclose the commission of an offence. This is clear from the use of the words "may take cognizance" which in the context in which they occur cannot be equated with must take cognizance". The word "may" gives a discretion to the Magistrate in the matter.” The scope of discretion is further expanded and reasoned by the Supreme Court in the case of Fakhruddin Ahmad v. State of Uttaranchal (2008) where the Court held that “Undoubtedly, the Magistrate can ignore the conclusion(s) arrived at by the investigating officer. Thus, it is trite that the Magistrate is not bound by the opinion of the investigating officer and he is competent to exercise his discretion in this behalf, irrespective of the view expressed by the police in their report and decide whether an offence has been made out or not. This is because the purpose of the police reports under Section 173 (2) of the Code, which will contain the facts discovered or unearthed by the police as well as the conclusion drawn by the police therefrom is primarily to enable the Magistrate to satisfy himself whether on the basis of the report and the material referred therein, a case for cognizance is made out or not.”
The legal literature of India has sufficiently described the term “cognizance” and almost every related aspect. In particular, it describes briefly the manner in which cognizance has to be taken by the Magistrate. It also emphasizes that the power of the Magistrate to take cognizance is discretionary in nature, rather than mandatory or directory. Also, this stage of taking cognizance is an important ‘judicial check’ or safeguard on the powers of the police and in effect constitutes as an essential facet of the rule of law. The power to take cognizance of an offence that is conferred upon the Magistrate is to ensure that an innocent that may have been erroneously booked by the police need not go through trial.