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The SLSA had directed three victims, who were awarded compensation for trafficking, to deposit 75% of the awarded amount as a fixed deposit to be disbursed by way of a Monthly Income Scheme.
The Calcutta High Court recently held that the State Legal Services Authority, West Bengal (SLSA) has no authority to control and monitor the award of compensation payable to victims of trafficking and others similarly placed, particularly when they have attained the age of majority.
In such cases, the victim has every right and liberty to choose the mode of expending the compensation amount, the Court emphasised.
The Court was hearing pleas filed against orders passed by the SLSA wherein victims, who were awarded compensation for trafficking, were directed to deposit 75% of the awarded amount as a fixed deposit to be disbursed by way of a Monthly Income Scheme.
This amount was ordered to be deposited in a nationalised bank, where the scheme would operate for 10 years, with an auto-renewal option. The victims were ordered to comply with the directive within 40 days from the date of receipt of the victim compensation.
Justice Sabyasachi Bhattacharyya ultimately allowed the petitions challenging these orders, observing that,
The Court passed the ruling after noting that as far as West Bengal is concerned, the State's Victim Compensation Scheme of 2017 would prevail over the Model Scheme framed for the National Legal Services Authority (NLSA), which had been cited by the SLSA to justify the orders in question.
The Court pointed out that the Victim Compensation Scheme of 2017 provided that the compensation awarded shall be disbursed to the victim by remitting the same into the bank account declared by the victim/dependents.
While this is the case, the Court held that the restrictions imposed by the SLSA on the petitioners would be an illegal fetter on the personal liberty of the victim. Further, it would be counterproductive to the scheme of Section 357A of the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC), from which any power to award compensation for victims flows, it was observed.
"...the impugned Orders traverse beyond the schemes envisaged in Section 357A of the Code of Criminal Procedure itself, which is the source of authority of the Governments, both Central and State, to frame such schemes and to implement the said section."
Calcutta High Court
The Court pointed out that the SLSA orders not only violated the existing State Scheme, but also restrained the victim from accessing the compensation awarded in full for 10 years, which is more that thrice the minimum period under the NLSA scheme.
"... the NLSA Scheme contemplates deposit of 75 per cent of the compensation amount in a fixed deposit only for a minimum period of three years, while the Notifications/Orders impugned in the present writ petitions stipulate a similar percentage of deposit for a much lesser amount of compensation for a mandatory ten years, which is more than three times the minimum moratorium period of three years."
Calcutta High Court
Thus, the SLSA orders amounted to “taking away” drastically from the model NLSA Scheme as well, the Court said.
The Court added that the NLSA Scheme was prepared as Model Rules for Victim Compensation, and that while nothing should be taken away from the Scheme, it did not preclude the State Governments from adding to the Scheme.
Hence, Justice Bhattacharyya held that, the impugned orders were de hors the 2017 scheme, and hence bad in law.
The judge also found no merit in the SLSA's defence that it had passed these orders to prevent the victims from "misusing" the compensation. In this regard, the SLSA had submitted that there have been earlier instances where the compensation awarded was so misused.
The Court, however, pointed out that the examples cited by the SLSA were isolated events. It added, "it is unfortunate that instances of use of the compensation for personal use by the victim, or purchasing property by the victim, or spending the amount for making ornaments or for the marriage of the victim, education of the victim’s child, etc. have been labelled as instances of ‘misuse’ of the compensation by the said victims."
While quashing the SLSA orders, the Court also criticised the Authority for its ‘Big Brother’ like approach in the matter. Justice Bhattacharyya remarked,
He further added that even if the victim makes a mistake in spending, it is not up to the SLSA to curtail access to the compensation amount. In this regard, the judge said, "The right to commit a mistake inheres in the right to personal liberty and freedom and should not be curtailed mandatorily and arbitrarily by the SLSA merely because it is in charge of the purse‐string, that too for such meagre amounts of compensation as contemplated under the Scheme."
[Read the Judgement here]