Hussainara Khatoon V State of Bihar : Case Analysis
Background of Hussainara Khatoon v State of Bihar
The then prevailing laws in India permitted that, in case of commission of an offence, only the victim or a relative of the victim could file a petition before the court. Ignoring this mandate, a writ of habeas corpus came before the Supreme Court of India, filed by Pushpa Kapila Hingorani, along with her husband, Nirmal Hingorani. Kapila was an Indian lawyer who wanted to bring forth the conditions of the undertrial prisoners of Bihar, which had been highlighted earlier in an article published in the Indian Express in 1979. The article read about how the undertrial prisoners were serving in prison and under what conditions, with some of them serving for more than their actual span of imprisonment.
The writ of habeas corpus is instituted so that a person is protected from unlawful incarceration, i.e. the custody of such a person has to be proven in order to hold him/her further. The writ petition filed by Kapila was the first case of Public Interest Litigation in India (PIL), and it demanded the release of 17 undertrial prisoners, which were mentioned in the same article of 1979. The Bihar government was asked to file a revised chart which displayed the yearly break-up of undertrial prisoners after dividing them into two categories, viz. those having committed minor offences and those having committed major ones.
A significant number of men, women, and even children, were kept behind bars, awaiting their trials for years. The offences for which some of the prisoners were charged were trivial, and even after imposing proper charges, the punishment would not have been for more than a few months of imprisonment. As per the reports of the Bihar government, many prisoners that were held in the Central Jails of Patna, Ranchi and Muzaffarpur as undertrials, before their release, were regularly brought before magistrates but were remanded judicial custody over and over. To justify the pendency of so many cases, it was contended that about 10% of cases were pending because they required the opinions of experts, which was also delayed.
All arguments were found to be unsatisfactory by the Apex Court, and hence it ordered the release of the 17 undertrial prisoners whose names were mentioned by Mrs. Hingorani in her writ petition.
The Supreme Court held that the detention of these prisoners was illegal as it completely violated the Fundamental Right to Life and Liberty under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution. The Court ordered the state government that in the case of prisoners having committed bailable offences, the government should appoint a lawyer at its own cost for making applications for bail and for opposing remand. Further, the state government, along with the high court, was required to furnish the details of the location and pendency of cases of the courts of magistrates as well as the courts of sessions in the state of Bihar up till 31st December 1978, and explain the delay in disposing of cases.
The Supreme Court understood the callousness of the legal justice system and the lack of money and resources poor people have to face, depriving them the access to justice. Justice Bhagwati held that the State cannot deny a person its Fundamental Right to a speedy trial on the ground that it lacks the adequate resources to improve the legal justice system and further the impetus of a speedy trial.
Article 21 of the Constitution is violated when an accused is not given a speedy and just trial, or is refused bail on unreasonable grounds, especially when one is indigent, or where an undertrial prisoner is forced to undergo imprisonment for a term longer than his/her actual punishment, or when the accused is poor and is not provided with free legal aid by the State.
The case of Hussainara Khatoon v State of Bihar reveals the lacunae in the legal justice system of the country. Even though the right to a speedy trial is a Fundamental Right as envisaged in our Constitution, the case highlights the gross violation of the same, where undertrial prisoners had to endure long terms of imprisonment simply because the courts did not have time and resources to either acquit them or award them their proper sentence. Some of the prisoners were even innocent, yet they were not released and kept behind bars, violating basic human rights. Also, the bail system that exists in India has been biased towards poor people who are unable to afford the hefty costs of litigation.