National Law University, Jabalpur
Curtailing a person’s liberty on the grounds of lack of human resources and order passed by the executive declaring Lockdown, which holds no direct bearing on the case, is not justified and is nothing more than misusing the power of the court to do injustice. The article highlights a similar situation in which two high courts denied hearing bail applications on the pretext of following lockdown guidelines and allowing only those bail applications which passed as an “extremely urgent matter” and placing the lockdown regulation above individual liberty and freedom, thus violating A. 21 of our constitution. In this article, the author deplores the reasoning given by both judges of the high court in rejecting bail application, and how this instance showcases the failure of our Judiciary to uphold the paramount right of liberty and freedom of individuals, in this time of the pandemic.
‘Emergencies’ have always been the pretext on which the safeguards of individual liberty have been eroded.-Friedrich August von Hayek
Amidst the national lockdown imposed due to COVID 19, on the 3rd of April, a Supreme Court bench of L. Nageswara Rao and Deepak Gupta JJ, passed an order, granting an interim stay on order passed by the single judge bench of Rajasthan High Court arising (out of S.B.Criminal Miscellaneous Second Bail Application No.17767 of 2019). The case was an appeal against an order passed by a single judge of Rajasthan high court which dismissed the bail application of the undertrial prisoner citing, non-availability of administrative staff and hearing of only those cases which pass the test of ‘extremely urgent matter’, during lockdown period, as grounds for dismissal. The irony was that the high court appealed against the order through its registry to the Supreme Court, which later gave a stay on order.
Another case arose on the very same day, in the Bombay High Court, where another single judge passed an order dismissing the bail application citing the same reasons and holding, the order passed by Rajasthan high court as an authority for its actions. The reasons laid down by the judge in succinct was-
“…Because of Lockdown declared by the State, as mentioned in the preceding paragraph, all Offices, including Offices of the Court, are virtually closed. By deputation of bare minimum staff, extremely urgent business is being transacted. 1. Processing a bail order and consequent release of an accused/convict, as such, virtually amounts breaching the order of complete Lockdown. 2. Putting several employees and officers to work may put them to the risk of contracting COVID-19.”
The reasoning given by both judges of High Courts in the order can be termed absurd and in violation of constitutional as well as humanitarian principle. Unless an “extremely urgent situation” for entertaining regular bail application is pointed out, the mere fact that the accused is undergoing either pretrial or post-trial detention does not make a difference in deciding whether to hear the bail plea. Denial of bail without any just cause amounts to a Judicial suspension of Article 21 of the constitution. The same is being done for the class of undertrial prisoners citing the order of lockdown passed by the executive, making the decision of the two high courts unreasonable and arbitrary.
This situation reminds of episodes that happened during the emergency period, which was later approved by the utterly disgraceful judgment of ADM Jabalpur delivered by the Apex court in the year 1976. After what was done by the 44th amendment to the constitution, taking away a person’s liberty by the colourable order of the executive even in a state of emergency is discarded as it makes a mockery of the constitution and is unconstitutional. The current situation is not the one where an emergency has been declared, so, paying adherence to guidelines of the executive cannot be a ground for not hearing bail applications and restricting one’s liberty.
Further, Supreme Court in its judgement concerning Section 167(2), Cr.P.C (read this) said that the right of default bail must be granted providing no extension for the period required to have default bail, and declared that right to bail is indefeasible right, held by this court in the case of S. Kasi v. State (2020), which in turn supports the individual liberty and freedom. The orders of both, the Rajasthan and Bombay High Court, and the judgement of SC, regarding the right of default bail, stands in contrast with each other.
The Phrase ‘extremely urgent matter’.
The Judiciary over time has emphasized the importance of a person’s life and liberty, which in turn led to a broad interpretation of Article 21 of our constitution. The guidelines delivered in the case of D.K. Basu vs. State Of West Bengal delivered by Supreme court in the year 1996, effectively talks about the importance of liberty of undertrial prisoners, whose guilt has not been proven yet and who is subject to the hard life of judicial custody which completely negates the fundamental principle which our maker envisaged under article 21. Asking a person to prove his freedom as an ‘urgent matter’ which is otherwise guaranteed to him as a fundamental right and restricting it in view of the executive order is nothing more than the breach of constitutional principles, by the one protecting it.
The court in the case of Gudikanti Narasimhulu And Ors vs Public Prosecutor, (1997), held that “… Personal liberty, deprived when bail is refused, is too precious a value of our constitutional system recognized under A. 21. that the curial power to negate it is a great trust exercisable, not casually but judicially…” Denial of bail without any justified reasons is a breach of the fundamental right of paramount importance. Bail is a general rule and denial is an exception which should be done in consonance with the constitution, is been laid down as law by the Apex court in the case of State of Rajasthan v. Balchand alias Baliya in 1978. Creating a new category as ‘extremely urgent matter’ within bail applications is in itself a constitutional wrong incorporated by the higher Judiciary and is in complete derogation of the primary objective of the constitution, which is to protect individual liberty.
The Need For E- Judiciary
This instance of rejecting bail application due to lack of administrative staff availability again questions the effectiveness of the Indian Judiciary. Judiciary cannot deny just and fair treatment to persons due to its incompetence. The lack of administrative resources arose because our Judiciary is not well equipped to deal with these situations, so making this a reason to violate someone’s rights is absurd. This situation again gives a heads up to our Indian judiciary system to finally accept and adapt to the E- Judiciary model. Our Judiciary is hesitant to adapt to this drastic change of affairs, as shifting to E-mode is a challenge to their already settled way of dealing. Changing and adopting the E-model of dealing with court affairs will bring effectiveness, and it will lead to fewer human resources dealing with simple instances of carrying out bail applications.
Court of South Africa-
The court of South Africa has taken a liberal approach during the pandemic, whether it be declaring guidelines passed by the government as unconstitutional or guiding the nation’s guidelines. In the recent judgment, Chief Justice Mogoeng issued a directive specifying that subordinate courts would remain open for urgent matters, including “bail applications and appeals or matters relating to violations of liberty, domestic violence, maintenance and matters involving children.” It is remarkable to note that in chief justice Mogoeng approach, bail application comes first in what constitutes as “urgent matter” for the court to take cognizance. The decision made by the court of South Africa acts as a sucker punch to what constitutes a high critique order passed by the higher Judiciary of India, restricting individual liberty and his varied fundamental right up to the limits of the order passed by the executive.
In this pandemic, many challenges have been put forth in front of our Judiciary, whether it be dealing with the issue of migrant labourers, judicial review of varied state government guidelines, or issue of under-trial prisoners. So far, the Judiciary lacks its competency to answer the same. The issue of granting bail application is of prime importance. Judiciary cannot phrase restricting one’s liberty and freedom as non-important and cannot curb the fundamental rights on the pretext of executive order or lack of resources.
The need for E-Judiciary is the first significant change to be done so that in the future no one’s liberty is curbed for the mere reason of non-availability of human resources, furthermore, it is the duty of the SC to pass an order for establishing the rule of law regarding bail and to remove ambiguity erupted over the time, as many High courts have imposed unconstitutional condition, such as donating money to PM cares fund, installing Aarogya Setu app and many more, which inadvertently lead to ambiguity in the law of bail, and should be cured by the Apex Court. The true justice was later rendered by the Supreme court when they put a stay on order passed by the Rajasthan High court, but this particular instance again reminds of the ADM Jabalpur judgment, the darkest hour for Indian Judiciary.