The Delhi High Court has decided that its blanket order extending all interim stays and bails granted prior to and during the COVID-19 lockdown would not remain in effect after October 31. All undertrials whose bail period was extended have to surrender in a phased manner between November 2 and November 13, it said.
The court also said that the order would also be applicable to 356 prisoners who were granted bail by the high court and they would have to surrender before the jail authorities on November 13. The high court on August 24 had extended till October 31 all the interim orders which were to expire on or after August 31 in cases that are before it as also the district courts in view of the COVID-19 pandemic.
A full bench of Chief Justice D N Patel and justices Siddharth Mridul and Talwant Singh said that bail granted by the trial court to 2,318 undertrial prisoners involved in heinous crimes and which was being extendedfrom time to time on the basis of the high court’s blanket extensionorder, would come to an end on October 31 and all of them have to surrender in a phased manner between November 2 and November 13. The surrender process would start on November 2 with the prisoners of Central District, Tis Hazari Courts and would culminate on November 13 with the surrender of prisoners from Rouse Avenue Courts Complex, New Delhi, the high court said in its order of October 20.
The high court said the interim bail and interim stay extension order of March 25, which was extended from time to time, “was necessitated because functioning of the courts was curtailed due to complete lockdown declared on March 25", but “now the situation has changed and all the courts at high court and district court level are functioning through physical mode/video conference mode". Another reason given by the bench, for modifying its March 25 order, was that there is no spread of COVID-19 in the jails and out of about 16,000 prisoners only 3 are infected and they have been segregated and are admitted in hospital.
The bench said its order would also be applicable to those 356 prisoners who were granted bail. “The jail authorities shall make appropriate arrangements to ensure surrender of prisoners as detailed above and take all required steps in view of guidelines issued by government authorities from time to time to contain the spread of COVID-19," the bench directed.
“As far as 2,907 prisoners, who have been granted bail on the recommendation of the High Power Committee are concerned, a request is made to the High Power Committee to take a decision in respect of the said prisoners within ten days from today," it said in its order. The bench further said that the interim orders passed in civil matters, which were extended vide orders dated March 25 and subsequent orders, “shall cease to have effect on the next date of hearing in the said matters.
The high court said that in all the bail matters and the civil cases the parties affected can move courts concerned for extension of the interim orders or bails. It said that such pleas for extensions would be decided by courts concerned on merit without being influenced by the directions of the high court.
With these observations and directions, the bench disposed of the PIL initiated by it to extend the interim orders of stay and bail granted in civil and criminal matters, respectively, during the lockdown. During the hearing on October 20, the bench had observed that its blanket order extending interim bails and paroles granted to prisoners in view of the COVID-19 pandemic should come to an end as the number of infected persons in jails here was only three.
The high court had said, “Let us bring to an end the COVID chapter. Let these people surrender or go back to jail. We passed the order in view of the pandemic. Our order has nothing to do with overcrowding of the jails. We are not concerned by the nature of the crimes." The observations by the bench came while hearing an application, moved by one of the prosecutors dealing with the northeast Delhi riots cases in the trial courts, seeking modification of the high court’s July 13 and July 24 orders by which it had clarified that its orders extending interim bails/paroles would be applicable to everyone granted the relief before or after March 16.
The application had alleged that the two orders were being misused by the accused in the riots cases by seeking bail on grounds of family illness or some such other reasons, instead of seeking regular bail, and then getting the same extended on the basis of the high court’s direction. The lawyer told the bench that around 20 accused in riots cases were out on interim bail on some pretext and are now enjoying benefits of the high court’s blanket order.
The Delhi government standing counsel (criminal) Rahul Mehra, appearing for the DG Prisons, had told the bench that removing the blanket order would go against the spirit of the Supreme Court’s order to decongest jails during the pandemic as COVID-19 cases have not gone down in the national capital. He had also said that the decongestion of prisons has not led to any increase in crimes or anarchy.
On March 25, the high court had extended till May 15 the interim orders in all matters pending before it and subordinate courts in view of the lockdown. Thereafter, the relief was extended from time-to-time and it was last extended till October 31 on August 24.