Undertrial’s custody can’t be extended mechanically, even in Covid: Delhi HC

The Delhi High Court has held that default bail is a fundamental right under Article 21 of the Constitution and an undertrial’s custody cannot be extended mechanically, even during pandemic times.

Justice Manoj Kumar Ohri, who was hearing the bail plea of a dowry death accused on Sunday, also issued few guidelines considering the seriousness of the issue.

The court concerned shall not mechanically extend the period of custody for a maximum period of 15 days as prescribed under Section 167(2) of the CrPC, he said.

The custody shall be extended while keeping in mind the 60th, 90th or 180th day (depending on the nature of offence and applicability of any Special Act) of completing the investigation and submission of the charge sheet. If these days fall before the maximum extension period of 15 days, then the custody shall be extended only up to the 60th, 90th or 180th day, as may be applicable, another guideline said.

The ruling came in a dowry death case, in which the accused and his family members were booked under the Indian Penal Code’s Sections 304B (dowry death) 498A (husband or relative of husband of a woman subjecting her to cruelty), 406 (criminal breach of trust), 34 (common intention) on January 16, 2020.

As per the plea, the petitioner was arrested on January 18, 2020 and on being produced before a court the next day, was sent to judicial custody.

His custody was extended from time to time and went beyond the maximum period of his judicial custody which was 90 days.

The plea stated that from March 24 2020, when the Covid-19 lockdown was imposed, the undertrials in judicial custody could not be produced before the courts concerned, and their custody was extended by the Jail Visiting Magistrate.

However, no charge sheet was filed against the accused during these times, advocate Rajesh Anand, who represented the petitioner, argued.

The court also asked the Registrar General of the High Court as well the Director General, Prisons, on the steps undertaken so that an undertrial is informed of his right to seek “default bail” and that such right is not defeated but rather timely exercised.