The COVID-19 lockdown does not eclipse personal liberty and the fundamental right to life, the Supreme Court said in a recent judgment.
The case concerns an appeal against a decision of the Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court refusing bail to an accused despite the fact that the charge sheet was not filed within the stipulated period of 60 days under the Code of Criminal Procedure.
A three-judge Bench led by Justice Ashok Bhushan, in a 35-page judgment, did not fully agree with the High Court’s view that the lockdown was like a state of emergency and the “whole nation has accepted the restrictions for the well-being of the mankind”.
Justice Bhushan corrected the course of judicial thought, taking a leaf from Justice H.R. Khanna’s historic minority view in the infamous Emergency Case, to note that “the State has no power to deprive the person of his life or liberty without the authorities of law”.
Justice Bhushan, speaking for the Bench, said the K.S. Puttuswamy judgment (in the Aadhaar case) had also held that personal liberty was inalienable to human existence.
The apex court held it was the “indefeasible right” of the accused to get default bail if the charge sheet was not filed by the police within the stipulated time. The lockdown announced by the government shall not operate as a restriction on the rights of an accused regarding his ‘indefeasible right’ to get a default bail on non-submission of charge sheet within the time prescribed, said.
Justice Bhushan said the Single Judge of the High Court committed another “serious error”.
The High Court had refused bail while referring to an order passed suo motu by the Supreme Court on March 23, 2020. In this order, the apex court relaxed the limitation for filing petitions, applications, suits, appeals, etc, among the COVID-19 lockdown.
Justice Bhushan expressed surprise at how the March 23 order had been misconstrued. The judgment clarifyied that this order was passed to help litigants and lawyers during the health crisis. The police cannot misuse this order to not file charge sheet and deny an accused bail.
Going by this logic, Justice Bhushan pointed out, the police could cite the pandemic and not present an accused before the magistrate within 24 hours as required under the law.
The appellant in this case, S. Kasi, accused of burglary, was arrested in February and lodged in the Trichy Central Prison. He was in judicial custody for 73 days. He had sought bail for non-filing of charge sheet within the stipulated 60 days. The lower court denied him bail and the High Court also followed suit.