On March 23, 20201 , the Supreme Court had taken suo moto cognizance of the situation having arisen due to COVID-19 pandemic. To obviate the difficulties being faced by lawyers/litigants who could not come physically to file proceedings, the Apex Court exercised its extraordinary powers under Article 142 read with Article 141 of the Constitution of India and thereby, had extended the period of limitation w.e.f. March 15, 2020, for filing petitions/ applications/suits/appeals/all other proceedings within the period of limitation prescribed under the general law of limitation or under Special Laws (both Central and/or State).
A three-judge bench2 of the Hon'ble Supreme Court comprising justices Ashok Bhushan, SK Kaul and MR Shah, held on June 19, 2020, that the Court's Order dated March 23, 2020, wherein the period of limitation had been extended for filing petitions, applications, suits, appeals on account of COVID-19 pandemic cannot be interpreted in a manner so as to amount to an extension of the period for filing charge-sheet under Section 167(2) of the Code of Criminal Procedure.
Hearing a criminal appeal arising out of judgment of Madurai Bench of Madras High Court dated May 11, 20203 , the bench clarified that it never intended to extend the period of filing charge sheet by police as contemplated under Section 167 (2) of the Code of Criminal Procedure. Further, the March 2020 order was not 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. The right of prosecution to file a charge sheet even after a period of 60 days/ 90 days is not barred and the prosecution can very well file a charge sheet after 60 days/90 days but without filing a charge sheet they cannot detain an accused beyond a said period when the accused prays to the court to set him at liberty due to non-filing of the charge-sheet within the period prescribed.
The Madras High Court while dismissing the bail petition had made the following observations with respect to order dated 23.03.2020:
<>i...The Supreme Court order eclipses all provisions prescribing period of limitation until further Orders. Undoubtedly, it eclipses the time prescribed under Section 167(2) of the Code of Criminal Procedure also..."
Taking note on the said observations, the Supreme Court ruled that neither the Order dated 23.03.2020 can be held to have eclipsed the time prescribed under Section 167(2) of Cr.P.C. nor the restrictions which have been imposed during the lockdown announced by the government shall operate as any restriction on the rights of an accused as protected by Section 167(2) regarding his indefeasible right to get a default bail on non-submission of charge-sheet within the time prescribed.
The learned judges remarked that the law of limitation bars the remedy but not the right. The Order dated 23.03.2020 was passed for the benefit of those whose remedy may be barred by time because they were unable to report physically to file such proceedings in respective courts/tribunals. The Order cannot be read to mean that it ever intended to extend the period of filing charge sheet by police as contemplated under Section 167(2) of the Code of Criminal Procedure. The Investigating Officer could have submitted/filed the charge sheet before the (Incharge) Magistrate even during the lockdown which has been done in so many cases and the Investigating Officer was not precluded from filing/submitting the charge-sheet even within the stipulated period before the Magistrate (Incharge).
The issue whether the Order dated March 23, 2020, covered police investigations or not had arisen on several occasions since passing of the order and several High Courts derived the intention of the said order in their own terms. It is pertinent to mention that another bench of Madras High Court4 while dealing with a bail petition had rejected a similar plea raised by police authorities taking refuge under the said order for dismissal of default bail and held:
"Personal liberty is too precious a fundamental right. Article 21 states that no person shall be deprived of his personal liberty except according to procedure established by law. So long as the language of Section 167(2) of Cr.Pc remains as it is, I have to necessarily hold that denial of compulsive bail to the petitioner herein will definitely amount to violation of his fundamental right under Article 21 of the Constitution of India. The noble object of the Hon'ble Supreme Court's direction is to ensure that no litigant is deprived of his valuable rights. But, if I accept the plea of the respondent police, the direction of the Hon'ble Supreme Court which is intended to save and preserve rights would result in taking away the valuable right that had accrued to the accused herein."
Subsequent thereto, other High Courts including Uttarakhand High Court5 , Kerala High Court6 and Rajasthan High Court7 followed suit and allowed the bail petitions and granted default bail to the accused person(s) under Section 167 (2) of Cr.Pc.
The Supreme Court decision has, by overturning the only divergent view taken by the Madurai Bench of Madras High Court, put an end to the ongoing speculations being made by different High Courts across the country with respect to the applicability of Order dated 23.03.2020 to police investigations and once again protected the much cherished right to life and personal liberty enshrined under Article 21 of the Constitution of India.
1 SUO MOTU WRIT PETITION (CIVIL) No(s).3/2020
2 CRIMINAL APPEAL NO. 452 OF 2020
3 CRL OP(MD). No.5296 of 2020
4 CRL OP(MD). No.5291 of 2020
5 FIRST BAIL APPLICATION No. 511 OF 2020
6 Bail Appl..No.2856 OF 2020
7 S.B. Criminal Revision Petition No. 355 of 2020
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