Customs Officers have no Authority to declare Title of Properties of any kind: Calcutta HC [Read Order]

In a significant case, the Calcutta High Court held that customs officers have no authority to declare title of properties of any kind. Vires could have been challenged in appropriate forum, exercising  ordinary jurisdiction, this Court cannot decide on the same. On 18th and 19th May, 1956 Defendant no.1, the Union of India through its servants and agents led by Defendant no. 2 broke open and entered into the rooms of Plaintiff no. 1 and 2 in the premises at Kolkata and seized and carried away goods and articles.

The petitioners protested the seizure and carrying away of goods by Defendant No. 2 and other servants and agents of Defendant No.1, Union of  India. The goods belonging to Plaintiff no. 3 was kept in the safe custody of Plaintiff No. 1. Defendant No. 6 also protested against the said seizure. sIt was further averred in the plaint that after such seizure the customs authorities continued to detain goods, save and except Defendant no.3 purported to make a release order of the goods of the plaint which had been so seized.

The then Income Tax Officer, District I(1), on behalf of the Defendant no. 1 detained the goods on the pretext of income tax due.  Appropriate proceeding for recovery of the amount was initiated. On receipt of information that the customs department had seized and taken into possession of the articles, the then Income Tax Officer, District I (1) Calcutta sent intimation to the Certificate Officer and Additional District Magistrate, Calcutta to issue a prohibitory order against the customs authorities restraining them from releasing the articles so seized. Mr. Roy argued that the instant suit was filed for  declaration of title along with other reliefs. Authorities  under the Sea Customs Act, 1878  is not bestowed with the power to adjudicate title of the properties.  That adjudication can be made only by a Civil Court.  The authorities under the Sea Customs Act 1878 are not vested with jurisdiction to decide on this issue or pass declaratory order as to  the title or ownership  of  the  confiscated  goods.

The  Plaintiffs  were  the  third parties to whom show cause notices were not issued. The articles were seized assuming  that  the  Defendant  no. 6 illegally imported these articles from foreign countries infringing the provisions of the Sea Customs Act 1878. Neither is there any provision nor is there any machinery under the Act to decide upon the issues. It was evident that on getting information and on suspicion, they made a raid in the exercise of authority given under the Sea Customs Act, of 1878. The original Plaintiffs did not adduce any evidence to establish that there was malice on the part of the raiding parties the authorities concerned or the Defendants.

The question of malice or mala fide is a question of fact. It was further explained that where malice is attributed to the State, it can never be a case of personal ill-will or spite on the part of the State. If at all it is malice in a legal sense it can be described as an act which is taken with an oblique or indirect object. A single bench of Justice Sugato Majumdar observed that “Civil Court in exercise of ordinary jurisdiction cannot  decide  on  the propriety of search and seizure; civil court in exercise of ordinary civil jurisdiction is neither authorized nor vested with such power. Similarly, the prohibitory order was passed  in  exercise of power conferred under the then existing Income Tax Act. Vires could have been challenged in appropriate forum. But exercising ordinary jurisdiction, this Court cannot decide on the same.”

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