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SC Upholds Maharashtra High Power Committee's Categorization Of Prisoners For Temporary Release Due To Covid-19 [Read Judgment]

22 Sep 2020 1:17 PM GMT
SC Upholds Maharashtra High Power Committees Categorization Of Prisoners For Temporary Release Due To Covid-19 [Read Judgment]
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The Supreme Court has dismissed the National Alliance for People's Movements plea challenging the decision of the High Power Committee in Maharashtra to classify categories of prisoners who will be released on emergency parole.

The present option provided is only as a solution to help decongestion and to avoid the spread of virus. At the same time the benefit granted in such circumstance cannot be to the detriment of social order by releasing all categories of prisoners irrespective of the categorisation to be made depending on the severity of the crime etc., the bench comprising Chief Justice SA Bobde, Justice AS Bopanna and V. Ramasubramaniam said.

The Committee had classified the inmates of the prisons, 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. One of the clauses stipulated that the convicted prisoners whose maximum sentence is above 7 years shall on their application be appropriately considered for release on emergency parole, if the convict has returned to prison on time on last 2 releases (whether on parole or furlough).

The PIL was filed by National Alliance For People's Movement and its convener activist Medha Patkar seeking quashing of the decision of the High Powered Committee (HPC) to the extent of Clauses (iii), (iv), (vii). As the High Court refused to quash the categorization, the NGO approached the Apex Court.

Upholding this view, the Apex Court bench  observed that the categorisation by HPC cannot be considered as unreasonable and that the exclusion made has a reasonable basis and cannot be termed arbitrary. The court said that the methodology for grant of the interim bail is with the intention to avoid overcrowding in the unprecedented circumstance and the grant of bail in the present circumstances is an additional benefit to such persons. It further added: 

"What has been curtailed by the HPC by excluding certain categories is only with a view to deny the benefit to certain category of jail inmates who are charged with serious offences which has an adverse effect on the society at large though the length of the punishment that can be imposed may be lesser. Such of those persons charged under the special enactments or convicted for a period, more than 7 years in any event if they are not otherwise disentitled to bail in a normal circumstance could still seek for bail in accordance with law and cannot treat the pandemic as fortuitous circumstance to secure bail to which they were otherwise not entitled to in law by claiming equal treatment. All that the HPC has denied them is the benefit of seeking interim bail only on the ground that they are entitled to be released on bail in view of the Covid­19 situation and no other legal right has been denied. 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".

The court also noted that, as on 24.07.2020, 10338 prisoners were released on interim bail/parole and presently 26,279 prisoners are in prison. While dismissing the SLP, the bench clarified:

If, despite the release of the undertrial/convicted prisoners in the categories presently made does not achieve the purpose and the fact that additional prisons are set up also does not suffice and in that context if any modification with regard to the categories made by HPC is necessary; certainly it would be open for the HPC to take note of the same and apply their mind to modify its guidelines in that regard.
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.
Case name: National Alliance for People's Movements vs. State of Maharashtra
Coram: Chief Justice SA Bobde, Justice AS Bopanna and V. Ramasubramaniam

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