Constitutional authorities not above law: Supreme Court
Even a constitutional authority cannot say that she or he is above the law, the Supreme Court observed, as it turned down a plea by the Uttar Pradesh government to not bind the governor with a deadline of three months to decide on remission pleas of convicts serving life terms.
Even a constitutional authority cannot say that she or he is above the law, the Supreme Court observed on Monday, as it turned down a plea by the Uttar Pradesh government to not bind the governor with a deadline of three months to decide on remission pleas of convicts serving life terms.
Directing the state government to decide on 2,248 cases of remission within three months, a bench led by Chief Justice of India Dhananjaya Y Chandrachud stressed that the law obligates each and every authority equally, and that the Constitution ascertains there is no vacuum even at the level of constitutional functionaries.
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“There is no vacuum at the constitutional level. Decisions at all level are to be examined by another authority...that’s how prescient our Constitution is. Just because one is a constitutional authority, they cannot say they are above the law,” said the bench, which also comprised justices PS Narasimha and JB Pardiwala.
The bench’s remarks followed its directive to Uttar Pradesh that all cases for considering the premature release of prisoners shall be disposed of within three months of the prisoner becoming eligible for remission under the relevant policy of the state.
But advocate Ardhendumauli Kumar Prasad, additional advocate general of the state government, expressed reservations against setting down the deadline, pointing out that the governor is the final authority in these matters. “The court is fixing a timeline of three months but it goes to the governor finally and the governor is a constitutional authority. I am pointing this out since we don’t want to come back in a contempt case on account of this (delay in a decision by the governor),” Prasad said.
The bench, however, retorted: “Don’t say that constitutional authorities are not bound by the law...You cannot say because I am a constitutional authority, I am above the law.”
It further said that many of the prisoners, who are forced to spend time behind bars despite being entitled to remission, languish because of lack of awareness or resources. “These cases are about rights of people under the law the state has framed...Most of them are poor or don’t have resources. We want to institutionalise the process,” said the CJI, issuing a string of directions to the state government to streamline the process of remission for life convicts.
As it heard a petition by an octogenarian seeking remission after his incarceration beyond 14 years, the court took on record the state’s affidavit, filed through advocate Vishnu Shankar Jain, which disclosed that out of 16,262 prisoners undergoing life term in the state, 2,228 inmates were eligible for premature release under a 1938 law after completion of 14 years behind bars.
Citing the state’s own records, advocate Rishi Malhotra, who was appointed by the court to assist it, complained that the state government was applying a “pick and choose” policy in deciding such matters, and that there was no institutional mechanism to ensure objectivity and accountability in the process.
Agreeing with Malhotra, the court recorded in its order that it is not open for the state to adopt an arbitrary yardstick to pick up cases of premature release once there are pertinent legal provisions that hold the field. “The provisions have to be applied efficiently and not unevenly for the similarly circumstanced prisoners. An arbitrary method adopted by the state is liable for great abuse and where persons lacking resources or adequate education would suffer the most,” it said.
The court directed that the concerned secretaries of the district legal services authority shall collate information from the district and state prisons on convicts who have become eligible for premature release and that the jail superintendents shall provide the requisite information without fail.
The district legal services authorities will in turn submit the statistics with the state legal services authority. The bench added that the chairperson of the state legal services authority will convene a meeting with the secretary of the home department and the director general of prisons to assess the data and pass necessary directions. It further ordered that an online dashboard with information of the convicts undergoing life sentences and other relevant details will have to be set up to make the system more efficient.
“The state government shall strictly abide by the provisions contained in policy governing premature release of convicts. The state shall take final decisions on the basis of existing policies governing premature release. All cases for considering premature release of prisoners shall be disposed of no later than 3 months of prisoner becoming eligible for premature release, within a period of three months,” the order added. The court further clarified that an application for premature release will be dealt with as per the policy of remission existing as on the date of conviction of a person.
The bench also expanded the scope of the petition and issued notices to states of Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Bihar and Maharashtra to know the compliance of laws on premature release of prisoners, and will hear the matter again after two weeks.