In a path-breaking Judgment, a two-Judge Bench of the Supreme Court has held that there are no restrictions on the High Court or Sessions Court to entertain an application for bail, provided, accused is in custody. The judgment has put an to end the decades old practice of first filing a regular Bail Application before a Magistrate having jurisdiction, and get it rejected for the purpose of approaching the Sessions Court or High Court for bail.
The case arises out of a Special Leave Petition seeking regular bail under Section 439 of the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC), which was declined by the High Court of Mumbai, with the observations that it is the Magistrate whose jurisdiction has necessarily to be invoked and not of the High Court or the Sessions Judge. The prayer by the accused before the High Court was to permit him to surrender to its jurisdiction, and thus by offering himself to custody, seeking grant of regular bail under Section 439 of the Code, on such terms and conditions as may be deemed fit and proper. According to the Single Judge, when the Accused's plea to surrender before the Court is accepted and he is assumed to be in its custody, the police would be deprived of getting his custody, which is not contemplated by law, and thus, the Accused "is required to be arrested or otherwise he has to surrender before the Court which can send him to remand either to the police custody or to the Magisterial custody and this can only be done under Section 167 of CrPC by the Magistrate and that order cannot be passed at the High Court level."
While setting aside the High Court Judgement, the Supreme Court has elaborated the scope of Section 437 and 439 of Cr.P.C. In Paragraph No-11, it holds; "Some poignant particulars of Section 437 CrPC may be pinpointed. First, whilst Section 497(1) of the old Code alluded to an accused being "brought before a Court", the present provision postulates the accused being "brought before a Court other than the High Court or a Court of Session" in respect of the commission of any non-bailable offence. As observed in Gurcharan Singh vs State (1978) 1 SCC 118, there is no provision in the CrPC dealing with the production of an accused before the Court of Session or the High Court. But it must also be immediately noted that no provision categorically prohibits the production of an accused before either of these Courts."
"The difference of language manifests the sublime differentiation in the two provisions, and, therefore, there is no justification in giving the word 'custody' the same or closely similar meaning and content as arrest or detention. Furthermore, while Section 437 severally curtails the power of the Magistrate to grant bail in context of the commission of non-bailable offences punishable with death or imprisonment for life, the two higher Courts have only the procedural requirement of giving notice of the Bail application to the Public Prosecutor, which requirement is also ignorable if circumstances so demand. The regimes regulating the powers of the Magistrate on the one hand and the two superior Courts are decidedly and intentionally not identical, but vitally and drastically dissimilar. Indeed, the only complicity that can be contemplated is the conundrum of 'Committal of cases to the Court of Session' because of a possible hiatus created by the CrPC. Meaning of Custody:
Since the terms 'custody', 'detention' or 'arrest' have not been defined in the CrPC, the Court, elaborately and eruditely discusses the meaning of 'custody'. The Court relies on Justice Iyer's decision in Niranjan Singh vs Prabhakar Rajaram Kharote (1980) 2 SCC 559 and quotes from the Judgment, thus ;
"7. When is a person in custody, within the meaning of Section 439 CrPC? When he is in duress either because he is held by the investigating agency or other police or allied authority or is under the control of the court having been remanded by judicial order, or having offered himself to the court's jurisdiction and submitted to its orders by physical presence. No lexical dexterity nor precedential profusion is needed to come to the realistic conclusion that he who is under the control of the court or is in the physical hold of an officer with coercive power is in custody for the purpose of Section 439. This word is of elastic semantics but its core meaning is that the law has taken control of the person. The equivocatory quibblings and hide-and-seek niceties sometimes heard in court that the police have taken a man into informal custody but not arrested him, have detained him for interrogation but not taken him into formal custody and other like terminological dubieties are unfair evasions of the straightforwardness of the law. "
The Court comes to a conclusion that since the Magistrate is completely barred from granting bail to a person accused even of an offence punishable by death or imprisonment for life, a Superior Court such as Court of Session, should not be incapacitated from considering a bail application especially keeping in perspective that its powers are comparatively unfettered under Section 439 of the CrPC.
The Court gave an extended meaning of the word "Custody" relying on Justice Krishna Iyer, who authored Niranjan Singh v. Prabhakar Rajaram Kharote and quoting (SCC p. 563, para 9) "He can be in custody not merely when the police arrests him, produces him before a Magistrate and gets a remand to judicial or other custody. He can be stated to be in judicial custody when he surrenders before the court and submits to its directions." If the third sentence of para 48 is discordant to Niranjan Singh, the view of the coordinate Bench of earlier vintage must prevail, and this discipline demands and constrains us also to adhere to Niranjan Singh; ergo, we reiterate that a person is in custody no sooner he surrenders before the police or before the appropriate Court."
Regarding the power of Sessions Court the Court proceeds as follows; "We are unable to locate any provision in the CrPC which prohibits an accused from moving the Court of Session for such a relief except, theoretically, Section 193 which also only prohibits it from taking cognizance of an offence as a Court of original jurisdiction. This embargo does not prohibit the Court of Session from adjudicating upon a plea for bail".
It appears to us that till the committal of case to the Court of Session, Section 439 can be invoked for the purpose of pleading for bail. If administrative difficulties are encountered, such as, where there are several Additional Session Judges, they can be overcome by enabling the accused to move the Sessions Judge, or by further empowering the Additional Sessions Judge hearing other Bail Applications whether post committal or as the Appellate Court, to also entertain Bail Applications at the pre-committal stage.
Dealing with the issue on the touchstone of Constitution, the Court holds ; (Para- 7) " Article 21 of the Constitution states that no person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to procedure established by law. We are immediately reminded of three sentences from the Constitution Bench decision in P.S.R. Sadhanantham vs Arunachalam , which we appreciate as poetry in prose - "Article 21, in its sublime brevity, guards human liberty by insisting on the prescription of procedure established by law, not fiat as sine qua non for deprivation of personal freedom.
And those procedures so established must be fair, not fanciful, nor formal nor flimsy, as laid down in Maneka Gandhi case. So, it is axiomatic that our Constitutional jurisprudence mandates the State not to deprive a person of his personal liberty without adherence to fair procedure laid down by law". Therefore, it seems to us that constriction or curtailment of personal liberty cannot be justified by a conjectural dialectic. The only restriction allowed as a general principle of law common to all legal systems is the period of 24 hours post-arrest on the expiry of which an accused must mandatorily be produced in a Court so that his remand or bail can be judicially considered.
The judgement is authored by Justice Vikramajit Sen, sitting along with Justice K S Radhakrishnan.