New Delhi: The Supreme Court on Tuesday directed all states and Union territories to fix a timeline to decide on requests for early release by life convicts, noting with regret that a total of 1,649 such applications were pending across 21 states.
Contemplating a uniform policy across the country, the top court said that there must be a regime in place to ensure that convicts undergoing a life term are apprised of their legal right to seek remission after completing 14 years behind bars.
According to the law, people sentenced to life imprisonment are supposed to be inside the prison until they die. However, the law entitles the state government and jail authorities to consider the early release of convicts if they are is found to have good conduct throughout a minimum jail term of 14 years.
On Monday, the Supreme Court bench of justices Sanjay K Kaul and Hrishikesh Roy noted that the best practice would be to ensure that jail superintendents send applications for early release within a month of the convicts completing 14 years in jail, and the state’s home department then takes a decision within three months.
Legal aid to those who are unable to pay for lawyers cannot be a mere formality, but must always be about providing proper assistance, the bench underlined, while noting that some legal aid lawyers indiscriminately filed appeals in the life term cases without even considering if the convicts had filed requests for early release after completing 14 years in prison.
The bench was hearing a petition by a murder convict who filed an appeal in the apex court after he spent more than 14 years in a Chhattisgarh jail. Appointed as amicus curiae to assist the court, advocate Liz Mathew pointed out that although the Chhattisgarh government has a rule to enable filing of applications for early release, it took almost four years for the prison authorities and the home department to take a decision in this case and order the release.
Appearing for the National Legal Services Authority (Nalsa), advocate Gaurav Agrawal presented a chart that showed 1,649 applications of convicts seeking premature release pending across 21 states, 431 prisoners not having moved such pleas despite spending 14 years in jail.
The court, in light of this, said that it intended to put in place a uniform mechanism with respect to processing of applications for early release after ensuring proper legal assistance to the life term convicts.
“It is a valuable right under the law. And we think if the law provides for it, the convicts should be made aware of their right. Legal aid cannot just be a mere formality which is to get over by filing appeals,” remarked the bench as it asked all the states to respond on fixing a timeline for remission decisions.
The court asked Nalsa to circulate the copy of its order to all states and union territories and fixed the matter for hearing next on March 1.
The bench has considered at least 10 cases where convicts either completed 14 years in jail or were nearing the 14-year mark. But there was no information on whether the convicts had been given any legal assistance to file their pleas for early release.
In one of these cases that the court heard last week, it issued a notice to the Supreme Court Legal Services Cell, asking it to look into such cases and to ensure the provision of proper legal assistance to the convicts.
Senior Advocate and former Additional Solicitor General KV Viswanathan told HT: “This is a salutary order, having Article 21 (right to life and dignity) overtone. This order will go a long way in bringing uniformity in jail rules and ensuring speedy decisions in such cases.”