PIL filed in Bombay High Court to quash the decision of the High Powered Committee regarding the classification of prisoners. The court dismisses the petition and holds that the classification was in consonance with Article 14 of the Indian Constitution.
Brief Facts of the Case
A High Powered Commission (HPC) was constituted by a Supreme Court order dated 25th March 2020. This was done in light of the COVID-19 pandemic to ensure maximum possible distancing in the prisons. On 25th March 2020, the HPC passed a decision to categorize the prisoners to determine their eligibility for temporary release. The petitioners have challenged the aforesaid decision in the present PIL alleging it as unconstitutional. The petitioners pray for the quashing of the decision of the HPC to the extent of Clauses (iii), (iv), and (v).
The petitioner submits that the HPC has exceeded its jurisdiction and the classification made is not reasonable classification. According to the petitioner, it fails to satisfy two conditions, 1) the classification must be based on an intelligible differentia; 2) there must be a rational explanation for the classification and the object it seeks to achieve. Therefore, the decision by the HPC is violative of Article 14 of the Constitution of India.
The petitioner further submits that the HPC was constituted to ensure maximum distance in the prisons during the COVID-19 pandemic. He submits that categorizing prisoners or under-trials for temporary release due to the pandemic is not reasonable classification. According to him, there is no nexus between the basis of classification and the object for which the HPC was constituted.
According to the petitioner, the requirement that prisoners should have been released on two occasions earlier either on parole or furlough for being eligible for temporary release is causing hardships. This will impact prisoners who have never been released twice but are otherwise eligible.
The respondent denies the submissions made by the petitioner. He contends that the decision passed by the HPC is not arbitrary. The respondent states that the Supreme Court had previously clarified that the States/Union Territories (UTs) are not required to release the prisoners compulsorily. The intention behind the Supreme Court order was merely to ensure that the States/UTs assess the situation in their respective prisons and maintain maximum distance possible in light of the COVID-19 outbreak. According to him, the SC had given the necessary power to the HPC to determine the category of prisoners to be released. The respondent submits that since the HPC has not transgressed the prisoners’ rights, the PIL must be dismissed.
The Court observes that in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, various precautionary measures have been taken by experts that include physical distancing. In light of this, the SC passed certain directions to ensure distancing in the prisons. In its order, the SC specifically directed that the HPC has the power to determine a category of prisoners eligible for temporary release. This could be done based on the nature of the offense, the number of years to which the prisoner has been sentenced, the severity of the offense, and any other relevant factor that may be appropriate. In this light, the contention of the petitioner that the HPC exceeded its jurisdiction is baseless.
The Court relies on SC’s decision in West Bengal v. Anwar Ali Sarkar and observes that equality under Article 14 doesn’t mean that every law must have universal application. It means that the law must be equally applied to equals. The law of equality doesn’t take away the power of the state to make classifications based on rational distinctions. Therefore, the classification made by the HPC is not violative of Article 14 of the Constitution.
To resolve the last contention put forth by the petitioner, the court relied on Milind S.Patil & Ors. v. The state of Maharashtra. The court observed that the decision passed in the aforesaid judgment regarding the release of prisoners on parole/furlough shall apply in the present case. Therefore, the prisons must release prisoners who haven’t been released on two occasions before if they otherwise meet the criteria for temporary release. Further, the court left it open to the authorities to impose suitable conditions for the release of convicts who had only been released once or never before.
Justice Jamdar wrote the judgment whereas Chief Justice Dipankar Dutta gave a concurring judgment. After examining the contentions of the parties, recommendations, and directions of the HPC and the Supreme Court, the Bombay HC held that the decision of the HPC hadn’t put bars on the Courts for considering regular bail applications. The court directed that the prisons are obliged to release prisoners who haven’t been released on parole or furlough twice before if they meet the other relevant criteria for temporary release. The court held that the HPC had not violated Article 14 of the Constitution. In contrast, the HPC has balanced the rights of the prisoners to maintain maximum possible social distancing to limit the spread of Covid-19 in the prisons. In light of the above, the Bombay HC dismissed the PIL after granting limited relief to the petitioners.
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