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Consideration for interim bail not statutory right but human right to safeguard health (COVID19)-SC

National alliance for people's movement and Ors. v. State of Maharashtra and Ors. SPECIAL LEAVE PETITION (CRL) NO.4116 OF 2020, September 22, 2020

The bench consisting of judges CJI S.A.Bobde, Justice A.S.Bopanna and Justice V.Ramasubramian held in a case that consideration for interim bail is not in the nature of a statutory right for bail based on other legal consideration but is more in the nature of human right to safeguard the health.

In the present case, the State of Maharashtra by following the order of the Supreme Court in Suo Moto Writ Petition (Civil) No.1/2020 constituted the High-powered Committee in the state. As per the guidelines of the HPC dated 25.03.2020, inmates were broadly into three categories, viz (i) undertrial prisoners/convicted persons who are facing trial or convicted to the maximum punishment of 7 years or less, (ii) the convicted persons whose sentence is above 7 years and (iii) the undertrial prisoners or convicted persons who are booked for serious economic offences/bank scams and offences under Special Acts such as MCOC, PMLA, MPID, NDPS, UAPA etc.

The petitioners while assailing the said guidelines had alleged discrimination in the categorisation and also unreasonableness in imposing the condition of earlier release in respect of the convicted persons for the sentence of more than 7 years.

The Supreme Court appreciated the high court for aptly making references to the judgments of the Supreme Court in State of West Bengal v. Anwar Ali Sarkar, Arun Kumar & Ors v. Union of India & Ors. and K.R. Lakshman & Ors. v.. Karnataka Electricity Board wherein circumstances where requirement of article 14 of the constitution is to be satisfied is considered in detail. In the above view, the Supreme Court observed the following:

It is articulated therein that equality before the law or the equal protection of laws does not mean identity or abstract symmetry of treatment and that reasonable classification is permitted. In that background the High Court while approving the categorisation made by HPC has gathered the intention of the order dated 23.03.2020 passed by this Court in its correct perspective. ( para 8)

While bringing out the significance of the interim bail to be only to safeguard the health in time of the pandemic Covid-19, the court held,

In addition to the reasons assigned by the High Court we cannot also lose sight of the fact that the entire right to claim such interim bail has arisen in the unprecedented circumstance of the pandemic and the consideration for interim bail is not in the nature of a statutory right for bail based on other legal consideration but is more in the nature of human right to safeguard the health. (para 9)

While holding the guidelines issued by the HPC to be reasonable and within the meaning of equality under article 14, the court noted the following:

The Committee has thought it fit to separately classify the undertrials/convicted persons who are charged under the Special Enactments irrespective of the duration of imprisonment notwithstanding the fact that the punishment imposed could be less than 7 years. In that regard, what has weighed with the HPC is that such enactments provide for additional restrictions on grant of bail in addition to those under the Criminal Procedure Code. The said categorisation in our view cannot be considered as unreasonable since at the first instance, based on the categorisation made a consideration is required by the Court for grant of interim bail if such undertrial/convicted person is seeking bail purely on taking benefit of the notification issued pursuant to such decision taken by the HPC. The exclusion made has a reasonable basis and cannot be termed arbitrary. (para 11)

The court further noted,

Therefore, in the circumstance where the present consideration for bail is not provided under a statute but is made available based on the order passed by this Court and further, when a known criteria is formulated by the HPC, which had all materials before it, an interference with the same in a petition of the present nature in any event would not have arisen and the High Court was accordingly justified in its conclusion. (para 12)

The court, while taking note of the factual position as on 24.07.2020, as per details furnished, 10338 prisoners were released on interim bail/parole and presently 26,279 prisoners are in prison and the official capacity is only 23,217, also noted the appropriate measure taken by the government by setting up 36 temporary prisons which is currently occupied by 2507 prisoners and more will be shifted to avoid overcrowding. In the above view, the court concluded by observing the following:

Therefore, it would still be open for the petitioners to obtain necessary statistics and if any modification of the guidelines is necessary in future, they will be at liberty to submit an appropriate representation to the HPC which would in that circumstance look into the same and arrive at a conclusion at its discretion depending on the need or otherwise to modify its guidelines. In that view, we are of the opinion that when such factual consideration to achieve the object alone is necessary and the HPC is constituted for the very purpose, interference in a judicial proceeding of the present nature to alter the criteria would not arise unless it is shown to be so arbitrary that no reasonable person can accept. But in circumstances where there is any individuous discrimination amongst the prisoners in same category and similarly placed, it would be open for the competent Court to examine the same to that limited extent when grievance is raised by the person who is denied the benefit if he/she is entitled to such benefit. (para 15)

With no order as to costs, the petition was appropriately dismissed.

- Kalidharun K M



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