A Full Bench held that the prisoners cannot be granted a benefit in unprecedented circumstances. A release of all categories of prisoners based on the principle of equality irrespective of categorization will not achieve social order. There is a need to make classifications depending on the severity of the crime among other factors.
Brief facts of the case
The Supreme Court ordered the constitution of a High Powered Committee (“HPC”) in each state for deliberating on the decongestion of the prisons. In the wake of the pandemic, this committee was designated to determine which classes of prisoners were to be granted interim bail. The criteria were to be based on their term of imprisonment, among other factors.
The HPC in Maharashtra classified the prisoners into three categories. These are prisoners convicted for 7 years or less and prisoners sentenced for more than 7 years based on the IPC provisions. The third category of prisoners include persons convicted for serious economic offences/bank scams and offences under Special Acts (such as MCOC, PMLA, MPID, NDPS, UAPA, etc.)
This categorization emphasized the ‘nature of the offence’ and the ‘severity of offence’ for grant of interim bail.
The Appellants find the categorization of the HPC discriminatory. They also point at the unreasonableness in imposing a condition of “earlier release of the convicted person” as a factor for bail under the category of prisoners with a sentence of more than 7 years.
The High Court of Bombay refused to interfere with the orders of the HPC. Hence the present appeal.
The categorization made by the HPC is not to be treated as mandatory orders. This is because the committee was constituted for a temporary role in the situation of the pandemic. Also, prisoners convicted for life imprisonment should be released without insisting on past releases as furlough or parole.
The Bench upheld the categorization set by the HPC. It also stated that under Article 14 of the Constitution, equality before the law or the equal protection of laws does not mean an abstract symmetry in the treatment of persons. Rather, a reasonable classification is permitted to be undertaken for justice.
Further, the right to claim such interim bail arises due to the unprecedented circumstance of the pandemic. The present provision for an interim bail is not a statutory right, but a human right to safeguard the health of the prison inmates. This option of applying for an interim bail is only for decongestion and to prevent the spread of the virus in the premises of the prison. Hence, the categories of prisoners will be different in each State or Union Territory. It depends on the occupancy in the prison, the spread of the virus, the infrastructure available, and the need to release a certain number of prisoners for decongestion.
The HPC is headed by a High Court judge along with other officials having enough experience. Hence the categorization of prisoners is based on reasonable grounds.
The intention of the Supreme Court through such an order was not to release every prisoner irrespective of the offence committed. The Bench upheld the third category of classification made by the HPC. Special legislation provides for more restrictions on grant of bail and also to those under the CrPc.
It cannot be considered as unreasonable as the Court granting bail would also consider the provisions of the Special legislations if not for the notification for decongestion. This exclusion made has a reasonable basis and cannot be termed arbitrary under Article 14.
In paragraph 12 of the judgment, the Court explained the reasonability of the method used by the HPC for the grant of interim bail. The present grant of bail is only to reduce overcrowding and thus is an extra benefit. No other legal right has been denied as it is only the benefit of release owing to COVID-19 that has been restricted.
The HPC has excluded certain categories of prisoners due to the seriousness of their offences affecting the society. Even though their length of imprisonment is lesser, the nature of the offence can restrict them from this extra benefit.
Such prisoners cannot get bail in the cover of the pandemic when they are otherwise not entitled by the law, on the ground of equal treatment. Hence, the criteria formed by the HPC do not need any interference.
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