Case Analysis | Hussainara Khatoon & Ors. v. Home Secretary, State of Bihar [AIR 1979 SC 1369]

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“The poor in their contact with the legal system have always been on the wrong side of the law. They have always come across law for the poor rather than law of the poor”

Introduction

Speedy trial is the spirit of criminal justice. It is a significant aspect of a fair trial that is not only helpful to the victim but also to the accused. It plays a major role in avoiding the miscarriage of justice. An accused cannot be denied a speedy trial simply on the ground that he failed to claim it.

Hussainara Khatoon & Ors. it is a landmark case, decided on 9 March 1979, which provided a broad definition of Article 21 and stated that a speedy trial is a fundamental right of every citizen. It is the most popular case which discusses the human rights of prisoners in India. The honorable Supreme Court ruled out that the State should guarantee free legal aid and a speedy trial to administer justice.

Background of the Case

An article was published in the Indian Express newspaper in 1979 about the detention of under-trial prisoners in the Bihar jail. Few of these under-trial prisoners were serving prison terms for a longer period, in fact, longer than their actual detention period.

Advocate Pushpa Kapila Hingorani was one of the readers of the article and filed a case as a Public Interest Litigation (PIL)in the Supreme Court of India. This was the first reported case of PIL in India and Advocate Pushpa Kapila Hingorani is called as ‘Mother of Public Interest Litigation in India’.

 Facts of the Case

The current case was related to the rights of under-trial prisoners on the habeas corpus petitions and their following release. A writ petition of the habeas corpus was filed by Advocate Kapila Hingorani on behalf of the undertrial prisoners of Bihar. It has revealed the deplorable condition of a large number of people including women, children who are detained and awaiting for trial many years in the State of Bihar

Many of these prisoners have been charged with petty offences and sentenced to several months in prison than usual. The petition states that under trial prisoners who have committed petty offences are suffering in jail for more than 5-10 years, without trial. These people were poor and could not even afford to furnish bail.

The petition was filed together by all the prisoners of the Bihar jail. It was filed before the Supreme Court on behalf of a woman offender, Hussainara Khatoon. She was detained and held in ‘protective custody’ for four years, even though the Indian government had issued direct orders to release prisoners who are detained under the Foreigners Act coming from Bangladesh, on bail.

Issues

If the right to speedy trial be regarded as a part of Article 21.

Can the provision of free legal aid be enforced by the law.

Arguments by Petitioners

The application was dismissed on the grounds that the petitioners are under-trial prisoners and were not subjected to any trial. Many of these prisoners have been charged with petty offences and sentenced to several months in prison than usual. Another cause of their grief was their poverty, which made it impossible for them to even obtain bail.

Arguments of Respondent

In the counter-affidavit, the respondents submitted that many under-trial prisoners in the case, who do not appeal here, are detained at Patna Central Jail, Muzaffarpur Central Jail, and Ranchi Central Jail, before their release they have been repeatedly produced before the Magistrates, and thus were remanded again and again to judicial custody by the Magistrates. However, the Court did not find the statement to be true because the respondents could not determine the dates of the detention.

In addition, in order to justify an increase in the number of pending cases, the Respondents submitted that generally, the investigation in the cases has to be stopped as there is a hindrance in receipt of opinions from experts.  However, the Court dismissed this argument on the grounds that the State can use different methods for the same. 

Judgment in a Glance

The Court ordered to discharge all the under-trial prisoners whose names were there in the list submitted by Advocate Pushpa Kapila Hingorani. The Court also noted that long-term detention would be illegal and violated their fundamental rights under Article 21 as these prisoners are detained longer than what could have been awarded to them if they were tried and convicted.

Another order by this Hon’ble Court was to grant the under-trial prisoners charged with bailable offenses, free legal aid by the State, in the coming days of their trial before the Magistrates. This was intended so that even the poor under-trial prisoners could apply for bail and this can even make sure that the aim of speedy trial is achieved. The Supreme Court also ordered the State Government and High Court to provide details which included all the factors of the location of the courts of magistrates and courts of sessions in the State of Bihar and the total number of cases which are pending in each court as of 31st December 1978. They are also required to explain the reasons which are involved in the delay in the disposal of the cases if the said case is pending for more than six months.

Critical Analysis

Justice delayed is justice denied. These cases prove and stress the significance of the need for the right to a speedy trial for every citizen. There are many instance where person convicted is factually innocent of the charges. There were procedural errors that violated the convicted person’s rights. Mohammed Ali Bhat, a shawl trader from Kashmir, was arrested by the Delhi police in 1996 and was imprisoned as an accused of the Lajpat Nagar blast and Samlethi blast case. Lately, the Rajasthan High Court declared him “not guilty”. Another instance where Bhat spent 23 years of his life being imprisoned for a crime he never committed due to our sluggish justice. Statistics on Indian prisons expose that 76.1% of inmates are under-trial, spending their expensive time in jail without even being find guilty for the crime. Even though they are offered bail, most being extremely poor citizens, cannot afford the bail fee. Time spent in jail is not only a restriction to their freedom but it also has a major impact on their lives even after release as society sees no difference between an under-trial prisoner and a convict.

Conclusion

The case of Hussainara Khatoon v State of Bihar exposes the loophole in the justice system of the country. Although the right to a speedy trial is a Fundamental Right as mentioned in our Constitution, the case emphasizes the gross violation of the same, where undertrial prisoners had to suffer long terms of imprisonment merely because the courts did not have time to either acquit them or award them their proper sentence. Some of the prisoners were not even guilty, yet they were not released and kept behind bars, violating basic human rights. In addition, the bail system that exists in India has been unfair towards poor people who are unable to afford the costs of legal action. A legal system that cannot ensure justice to the poor of the country cannot be said to be a fair and just system.

Since the case, about 40,000 undertrial prisoners were released, which shows that if a person is committed to the welfare of the country, he/she can do it and witness comprehensive results. There is a need to have more lawyers like Advocate Pushpa Kapila Hingorani so that the needy and poor can have support when they raise their voice and each citizen must be well-aware of his/her rights provided to him/her under the law because the law helps those who are attentive of their rights and not those who sleep over it.

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Author: Trishla Dwivedi (Banasthali Vidyapith University, Rajasthan)


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