Less than a week after the government announced its ambitious plan to reduce the number of undertrial prisoners in jails, the Supreme Court Friday went a step ahead, ordering the immediate release of all inmates who have served half their maximum term without the completion of trial.
The Ministries of Law and Home Affairs were learnt to be coordinating to release undertrial prisoners — one of the major initiatives of the Narendra Modi government during its first year in power. The next step was to get states on board.
However, in a move that would decongest the country’s notoriously overcrowded jails, the court set a deadline of two months, starting October 1, for judicial officers to visit prisons under their jurisdiction and free all such inmates by passing appropriate orders in the jail itself.
The directive, issued by a bench led by Chief Justice R M Lodha, may benefit around one lakh prisoners in jails across country. However, it would not apply to those charged with offences which entail life term or the death penalty as maximum punishment. As per the Home Ministry, there were 2.55 lakh undertrial prisoners at the end of 2012. Of this, less than one lakh were charged with heinous offences like rape and murder or booked under terror charges and were, hence, facing life term or the death penalty.
The bench, also comprising Justices Kurian Jospeh and Rohinton F Nariman, based its order on Section 436A of the Criminal Procedure Code, which prescribes release of prisoners by a court on a personal bond with or without sureties if he or she has spent half the maximum period of sentence. This provision, however, has remained ineffective because of lack of awareness and because trial courts press for bail bonds for release.
On Friday, Attorney General Mukul Rohatgi informed the bench that the government was in the process of consultation with all state governments which, in turn, could get in touch with the respective high courts to take steps to release undertrial prisoners. He said that the task was “enormous” and that all chief ministers and chief justices should be “sensitised.”
The bench, however, rejected the Centre’s suggestion of involving the high courts, calling it “not workable”, and said that it would pass the order straightaway.
Notably, Law Minister Ravishankar Prasad had Sunday said that the NDA government has initiated work on an IT system for prisons in the country in a bid to decongest jails. Speaking at the 22nd convocation of the National Law School of India University in Bangalore, Prasad said that a pilot system was in place at Delhi’s Tihar Jail.
The convocation was presided over by CJI Lodha, who is also the university’s Chancellor.
The SC order, however, is simple and straight — asking trial judges to go to jails, get records of all inmates from prison officials, and passing bail orders on the spot. The bail will be granted on a personal bond if the accused is unable to furnish bail bonds and surety.
During the hearing, the bench also questioned the allocation of budget for the judiciary, and said that nobody seemed to be interested in investing in the judiciary since it was considered a “non-revenue generating” entity.
Referring to the proposal of increasing judges’ strength by 25 per cent across the country to check pendency of cases, the bench said that the “judge-case” ratio in India was “mind-boggling” and a “meagre allocation of 0.7-0.8 percent of the total budget to the judiciary will not help”.
“We want more courts and more judges. But only increasing the strength leaves us nowhere. Once you appoint a judge, you need to appoint other staff too. We have been writing to high courts but they tell us they don’t have funds. States look up to you for funds. You have to take the lead. Delay in appointment at subordinate judiciary has become a vicious circle,” said the bench, suggesting that the government go through a study that relates investment in judiciary to overall development.
The bench told the government that there were 30 million cases pending in the country, and that it ought to meet its financial obligations.
On the point of fast-tracking the criminal justice delivery system, the court asked the government to prepare a workable and comprehensive road map within three months and file an affidavit in this regard. It fixed the case for further hearing on December 8.
The court was hearing a PIL on repatriation of Pakistani prisoners who have either served their terms in India or are waiting conclusion of their trials. In 2008, the court had asked for completion of the trials of such prisoners within a year.