Tamil Nadu

HC scraps law banning online games with stakes

A view of the Madras High Court.  

The Madras High Court on Tuesday struck down part II of the Tamil Nadu Gaming and Police Laws (Amendment) Act of 2021, through which the legislature had imposed a blanket ban on rummy, poker and all other games played online for a wager, bet, money or other stake irrespective of it being a game of skill or a game of chance.

Chief Justice Sanjib Banerjee and Justice Senthilkumar Ramamoorthy held that the government had prohibited games of skill merely on the basis of “anecdotal” reference to a few suicides and subjective perception of addiction to online games with stakes.

“In the absence of any scientific or empirical study, the impugned legislation may be seen to have been born out of a sense of morality and a bid to play to the galleries in election season in a societal ethos where smoking and drinking are regarded as less immoral than when indulged in before elders… That the Bill faced no opposition in the House has more to do with the optics,” the judges said.

The first Division Bench held that the ban falls foul of the constitutional right of individuals, under Article 19(1)(g), to exploit their skills. However, it hastened to add: “Nothing herein will prevent an appropriate legislation conforming to the constitutional sense of propriety being brought in the field of betting and gambling by the State.”

Though the State government had heavily relied upon the 276th report of the Law Commission to justify the ban imposed by it on all forms of online games played with stakes, the judges pointed out that the report itself had stressed only on regulation and not prohibition. They said the ban must be regarded as something done by the legislature capriciously and irrationally.

The judgment was passed while allowing a batch of writ petitions filed by a host of private companies offering online games. The petitioner companies were represented by senior counsel Abhishek Manu Singhvi, A.K. Ganguli, Mohan Parasaran, C. Aryama Sundaram and P.S. Raman who questioned the rationale behind banning games of skill.

The judges agreed with the counsel that the Supreme Court had categorically ruled that rummy was a game of skill. They said that there would be hardly any difference in playing rummy physically or online. However, the law in question had not taken any of such issues into consideration before going about prohibiting all games, they added.

“All that can be said is that the Amending Act is so unequivocally audacious that it rules out any element of choice that an individual may exercise. The impugned statute is invalid in its every pore, such that no part of it can be salvaged or permitted to be retained… The unwavering mantra of the impugned legislation is prohibition and not regulation,” the Bench said.

It went on to state: “There is no doubt that the activity of gambling and the inextricable element of betting involved therewith has a deleterious impact on certain individuals and can even be ruinous. So much is accepted. The immediate question that arises is whether it was necessary to go the distance that the Amending Act has charted out to completely stultify and negate skill altogether.”

Authoring the verdict, the Chief Justice also said: “If, prima facie, the impugned legislation is seen to impose restrictions or altogether curb the exercise of skill in a particular domain, the onus is on the State to justify not only the need therefor but also the extent thereof. No attempt has been made in such regard apart from the anecdotal reference to some suicides and the subjective perception of the evil of addiction.”

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Printable version | Sep 18, 2021 8:30:11 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/tamil-nadu/hc-scraps-law-banning-online-games-with-stakes/article35711527.ece

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