The Meghalaya High Court has fixed a compensation between Rs. 10,00,00/- and Rs. 15,00,000/- for the victims of the custodial deaths based upon their age. It said that a death in custody is a slur on civilised State and completely unacceptable.

The Court initiated a suo motu public interest litigation pursuant to a direction issued by the Supreme Court in the judgment reported at (2017) 10 SCC 658 (Re-Inhuman conditions in 1382 prisons).

A Division Bench comprising Chief Justice Sanjib Banerjee and Justice H.S. Thangkhiew observed, “A death in custody is a slur on a civilised State and completely unacceptable. Ideally, there should be no death, except due to natural causes, while in custody. Of course, the natural causes are beyond the control of the State and convicts serving long sentences may also have age-related problems which may lead to their death. But it is particularly distressing to note the number of deaths of under-trial prisoners as the investigating agency uses third-degree methods to get information from the arrested person rather than go out in the field and investigate the matter.”

The Bench said that oftentimes, the excesses indulged in by the State through its police personnel result in admissions, which may be inaccurate, but which are made to stave off or delay the further torture.

Amicus Curiae N. Mozika appeared on behalf of the petitioner while AAG K. Khan, Addl. Sr. GA A.H. Kharwanlang, and Government Advocate S. Ain represented the respondents.

A distinction was sought to be made by the National Crime Records Bureau between natural and unnatural deaths in custody. At paragraph 6 of the judgment, the Supreme Court found the distinction to be unclear. After considering several reports, recommendations and suggestions made from several quarters, certain directions were issued by the Supreme Court in the relevant judgment at paragraph 58 and the various sub-paragraphs. In course of the proceedings, it came to light that there were 53 custodial deaths in the State since 2012.

Detailed reports were filed by the State indicating the likely causes of deaths in each case and the findings of the magisterial inquiry, albeit such inquiries were conducted by an Executive Magistrate in each case. Notices pertaining to such a matter were issued on several occasions and the next of kin of those who died in custody were informed, except in cases where the relevant inmate was from Bangladesh. It was the State’s submission that no person other than the 53 mentioned herein died in custody in the State since 2012 and thus, out of the 53 instances of custodial deaths, a total of 25 cases were found to be due to natural causes and the remaining 28 were cases of unnatural deaths.

The High Court in the above context noted, “If police brutalities and inhuman treatment of persons in custody have to be arrested, the compensation for custodial death has to be pegged at a level where the State will bleed to make the payment; not what the State is happy to pay off. … At any rate, there is no room to apply the strict liability theory when it comes to a death of a person in the custody of the State. The State’s liability in such regard is absolute and unless it demonstrates to the satisfaction of the Court that the death was due to natural causes, the Court may reasonably infer otherwise and hold the State liable.”

The Court said that the State is liable for the actions of its officers and employees and it is possible that in several cases, exuberant officials would go beyond the call of duty or the SOP in place.

“In respect of motor accident claims, there is a classification of the quantum of compensation payable based on the age of the victim. Accordingly, it is deemed fit and proper to classify the victims who have died in custody into three categories, namely, below 30; between 30 and 45; and, above 45. … For victims in the age-group of 30 to 45, the quantum of compensation should be Rs.12 lakh and for those above 45 years, it should be Rs.10 lakh. There is an element of subjectivity in arriving at such ballpark figures; however, when it comes to assessment of damages or quantification of compensation, there is an element of guesstimation that is always indulged in”, held the Court.

The Court added that for the period till date in case of any unnatural death while in custody, the next and kin of the victim will be entitled to a sum of Rs.15 lakh if the victim was below 30 years of age as on the date of death; a sum of Rs.12 lakh if the victim was below the age of 45 years but above the age of 30 years as on the date of death and, a sum of Rs.10 lakh if the victim was above 45 years of age as on the date of death.

“The quantum of compensation should be enhanced every three years so that it is sufficient damages for the next of kin and the deterrent factor is also maintained to the same degree. … It is made clear that the compensation will be payable only in cases of unnatural death, irrespective of the cause of death. In cases of natural death in custody, no compensation would be payable at all”, clarified the Court.

Accordingly, the High Court closed the PIL.

Cause Title- In Re suo motu custodial violence and other matters relating to prison conditions v. State of Meghalaya & Ors. (Neutral Citation: 2023:MLHC:827)

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