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[COVID-19] Time prescribed to file chargesheet under CrPC not eclipsed by virtue of order extending limitation period: Supreme Court

Shruti Mahajan

The Supreme Court on Friday held that its order extending limitation periods due to the COVID-19 pandemic does not intend to curtail the right of an accused to bail after the police has failed to file a chargesheet within the stipulated period of time (S Kasi v. State through the Inspector of Police Samaynallur Police Station Madurai District).

In doing so, the Supreme Court has put to bed issues arising out of conflicting decisions of the Madras High Court on grant of bail during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Bench of Justices Ashok Bhushan, MR Shah, and V Ramasubramanian directed for the release of an accused on default bail after the police failed to file a chargesheet against him within the stipulated period prescribed under Section 167(2) of the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC).

The Court was hearing an appeal against an order of the Madras High Court's Madurai Bench through which the appellant's bail application was rejected. The state had sought to take the cover of Supreme Court's order passed in March this year, through which the period of limitation was extended by the Apex Court in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Single Judge Bench of High Court had agreed with the argument presented before it by the state, which said that the stipulated period under the CrPC for filing of the chargesheet would also stand extended in light of Supreme Court's March order.

However, the Supreme Court was unimpressed with the position taken by the state, and set aside the High Court's order. The Bench held that the order to extend limitation periods was passed keeping in mind the difficulty that could be faced by litigants and lawyers, and not to curtail the rights concerning personal liberty of accused persons.

The Court said that the March order was passed to benefit the litigants whose remedy in law would become time-barred in these unprecedented times. It could not be interpreted to mean that the statutory period under Section 167(2) of the CrPC to file a chargesheet would also stand extended.

"The order was for the benefit of the litigants who have to take remedy in law as per the applicable statute for a right. The law of limitation bars the remedy but not the right."
Supreme Court

The judgment further elaborates,

"The order of this Court dated 23.03.2020 never meant to curtail any provision of Code of Criminal Procedure or any other statute which was enacted to protect the Personal Liberty of a person."
Supreme Court

The Court noted that even during the lockdown, a chargesheet could have been filed before the Magistrate in-charge, as was done in so many cases.

The High Court had, in its judgment, recorded that the imposition of the lockdown was akin to the proclamation of Emergency. However, the Supreme Court rejected this observation and said that the view was "erroneous and not in accordance with the law".

The right to life and liberty under Article 21 of the Constitution does not stand suspended even in case of Emergency, the Supreme Court pointed out by referring to the Forty-Fourth Amendment made to the Constitution through which the controversial judgment passed in the ADM Jabalpur case was effectively "knocked out".

"The sting of the judgment of this Court in Additional District Magistrate, Jabalpur versus Shivakant Shukla (supra), and retrograde steps 23 taken in respect of right protected under Article 21 was, thus, immediately remedied by the Parliament by the above Constitutional Amendment"

Furthermore, the judgment was formally overruled by the Supreme Court in KS Puttaswamy, where the Court had held that "the judgments rendered by all the four judges constituting the majority in ADM Jabalpur are seriously flawed. Life and personal liberty are inalienable to human existence."

Thus, the Bench held,

"The view of the learned Single Judge that the restrictions, which have been imposed during period of lockdown by the Government of India should not give right to an accused to pray for grant of default bail even though charge sheet has not been filed within the time prescribed under Section 167(2) of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 27 is clearly erroneous and not in accordance with law."

The Court thus concluded that neither the Supreme Court's March 23 order nor the restrictions that were imposed during lockdown could have said to have eclipsed the time prescribed under Section 167(2) of the CrPC regarding the "indefeasible right to get a default bail on non-submission of charge sheet within the time prescribed."

Two conflicting decisions from different Benches of the Madras High Court had emanated from the issue of default bail during the COVID-19 lockdown back in May.

On May 8, the Bench of Justice GR Swaminathan in Settu v. State ruled that the right of an arrested person to grant of default bail could not be diluted by applying the Supreme Court's March 23 limitation extension order.

However, in S Kasi v. State (against which the present appeal lies), Justice GR Jayachandran differed from this perspective, observing that it would be unfair to expect the investigating agencies to be able to file their final report within the allotted time amid the COVID-19 crisis.

The Supreme Court observed that the Single Judge Bench in S Kasi v. State, made an uncharitable remark against the judge who decided Settu v. State. The judgment by the Apex Court records its disapproval on this and says,

"All Courts including the High Courts and the Supreme Court have to follow a principle of Comity of Courts. A Bench whether coordinate or Larger, has to refrain from making any uncharitable observation on a decision even though delivered by a Bench of a lesser coram... All Courts including the High Courts and the Supreme Court have to follow a principle of Comity of Courts. A Bench whether coordinate or Larger, has to refrain from making any uncharitable observation on a decision even though delivered by a Bench of a lesser coram."

With these parting remarks, the Supreme Court set aside the decision of the High Court and directed for the accused to be released on bail subject to personal bond of Rs 10,000 and two sureties.

The appellant was represented by Senior Advocate Sidharth Luthra and the respondent state was represented by Advocate Jayanth Muthuraj.

Read Judgment:

S Kasi vs State through the Inspector of Police Samaynallur Police Station Madurai District.pdf
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