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On the 3rd of April, a Supreme Court bench of L. Nageswara Rao and Deepak Gupta JJ, passed a brief order directing “interim stay of the directions in paragraph 15 and 16 of the order dated 31.03.2020 in S.B.Criminal Miscellaneous Second Bail Application No.17767 of 2019.” The case arose out of the High Court of Rajasthan – and extraordinarily – involved the High Court (through its Registry) appealing to the Supreme Court against an order passed by its own judge

What warranted this bizarre situation? On 31st March, a single judge of the Rajasthan High Court passed an order effectively holding that bail applications and applications of suspension of sentence could not be heard during the lockdown period, as they did not constitute “extremely urgent matters.” The Single Judge noted that (a) sending notice via police personnel (in cases of bail applications under the SC/ST Act) would increase the risk of Covid-19 spreading; (b) as public transport had been shut down, police personnel could not be expected to use their private vehicles to serve notice; (c) the complainants would find it difficult to engage lawyers if they wanted to oppose bail; (d) bail orders would have to be sent to the courts below, and sureties would have to appear; consequently, according to the Court, “the release of one accused or convict shall risk the life of many and would adversely affect the measures taken by the State for complete lockdown.” Noting further that on a report from the Director-General it was clear that there was no “overcrowding” in prisons and that there were regular medical check-ups, the Court directed that no bail or suspension of sentence matters be listed until the withdrawal of the lockdown.

Now, it is important to note that by directing that no bail or suspension of sentence matters could be listed for hearing before the lockdown ends, what the Single Judge effectively did was to judicially suspend Article 21 of the Constitution for the class of under-trials and convicts within the State of Rajasthan. Note that, after the passage of the 44th Amendment, this is something that not even the government is allowed to do, even if it formally declares an Emergency (which, in this case, it hasn’t). Interestingly, there are some very direct parallels between the Single Judge’s order and the judgment in ADM Jabalpur: in ADM Jabalpur a specific argument had been made that the suspension of the remedy of habeas corpus during the Emergency amounted to the effective erasure of Article 21, since without a remedy, there was no question of the right being in existence. Justice Beg dismissed the argument on the sophistic basis that the right remained in existence, and it was only the ability to enforce it that had been kept in abeyance. ADM Jabalpur stands overruled, but – as we have seen too often in the recent past – its underlying logic has not gone anywhere.

While the Supreme Court – as noted above – (mercifully) stayed this grossly illegal order, on the very same day, a Single Judge of the Bombay High Court passed a similar order, citing similar reasons in order to refuse to entertain a bail application until the end of the lockdown period. Indeed, he went even further, noting that the “mere fact that the accused is undergoing either pre-trial or post-trial detention, does not warrant entertainment of the regular bail application on the occasion of Lockdown declared by the State.” The Court went on to hold that an individual released on bail might infect other people in his or her attempts to get back home, and thereby defeat the purpose of the lockdown and of social distancing.

Both the Rajasthan and the Bombay High Courts, in essence, cited administrative difficulties in enforcing bail orders to justify refusing to hear bail applications altogether, during the lockdown period. As I have indicated above, these orders are wholly illegal, as they amount to a judicial suspension of Article 21 rights. They also reflect a deeply distorted judicial approach to fundamental rights: the Bombay High Court openly declared that the “mere fact” that an individual was in detention (and thereby deprived of liberty) was not a serious enough reason for “urgency”; thus, for all the sermonising that the Higher Courts engage in when it comes to Articles 14, 19, and 21 being the “golden triangle” of the Constitution, when it comes to the crunch, it is bail applications that are the first to be consigned to the scrap heap as collateral damage during the lock-down, on grounds of administrative difficulties (indeed, if transport for “essential services” is permitted during the lockdown, does not the enforcement of constitutional rights count as an “essential service”?) . The Higher Courts have also, over the years, expanded the scope of “life and personal liberty” to include all manner of things; but when it comes to the heart of that constitutional article – actual physical bodily liberty, the stark, literal difference between being in jail and being free – the courts now turn around and tell us, effectively: “no big deal.”

As I had mentioned in a previous post, during the course of South Africa’s 21-day lockdown, Chief Justice Mogoeng issued a Directive specifying that subordinate courts would remain open for urgent matters including “bail applications and appeals or matters relating to violations of liberty, domestic violence, maintenance and matters involving children.” It is interesting to note that in CJ Mogoeng’s Directive, bail applications come first in an inclusive definition of what might constitute an “urgent matter”. I would respectfully suggest that a clarification from the Supreme Court on similar lines would go a long way towards ensuring that issues of personal liberty are not tossed aside during the lock-down period.

Such a clarification would also – it is hoped – prevent orders of the kind issued by the Bombay High Court today, where bail granted by a lower Court was stayed (one wonders, if bail matters themselves are not “extremely urgent”, how an application to stay a bail order is, but be that as it may). The Sessions Court had granted bail to two IL&FS directors on the basis of their advanced age, and the threat of Covid-19. One of the arguments made by the State before the High Court, it appears, was that the State High-Powered Committee had only recommended the release of offenders who were facing sentences of below seven years (which these two directors were not). However, surely the fact that offenders of a certain category should be granted automatic bail does not preclude a Court from applying its own mind and allowing a bail application in other cases! In other words, it appears that the fact that the Supreme Court and the High Powered Committee have recommended the release of a certain category of offenders because of Covid-19, that is now being made the basis of arguments that the Courts should automatically refuse bail to offenders who fall outside that category. This, it hardly needs to be said, is a very dangerous path for the law to take.

Worldwide, the outbreak of Covid-19 has triggered serious thinking and reflection about many of the social practices that we take for granted, including modern society’s obsession with incarceration, and our overflowing prison populations. It would be a pity indeed if the response of our courts was, instead, an even lesser regard for personal liberty, and an even more cavalier attitude towards the intersection of pandemics and mass incarceration.