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Archive for February, 2012

The Arms Act – Mandatory death penalty declared unconstitutional

February 8th, 2012 3 comments

The Arms Act, 1959 governs matters related to acquisition, possession, manufacture, sale, transportation, import and export of arms and ammunition. It defines a specific class of ‘prohibited’ arms and ammunitions, restricts their use and prescribes penalties for contravention of its provisions.

Section 7 of the Act forbids the manufacture, sale, and use of prohibited arms and ammunition unless it has been specially authorised by the central government.1  Section 27(3) prescribes that any contravention of Section 7 that results in the death of any person ‘shall be punishable with death’.2

Section 27(3) of the Act was challenged in the Supreme Court in 2006 in State of Punjab vs. Dalbir Singh.  The final verdict in the case was pronounced last week.  The judgment not only affects the Act in question but may have important implications for criminal law in the country.

Legislative history of Section 27

When the law was first enacted, Section 27 provided that possession of any arms or ammunition with intent to use the same for any unlawful purpose shall be punishable with imprisonment up to seven years and/ or a fine.

This section was amended in 1988 to provide for enhanced punishments in the context of escalating terrorist and anti-national activities.  In particular, section 27(3) was inserted to provide for mandatory death penalty.

The Judgment

The Supreme Court judgment says that Section 27(3) is very ‘widely worded’.  Any act (including use, acquisition, possession, manufacture or sale) done in contravention of Section 7 that results in death of a person will attract mandatory death penalty.  Thus, even if an accidental or unintentional use results in death, a mandatory death penalty must be imposed.

The bench quotes relevant sections of an earlier judgment delivered in 1983, in Mithu vs. State of Punjab.  In this case, the court had looked into the constitutional validity of mandatory death sentence.  The final verdict had ruled that a provision of law which deprives the Court of its discretion, and disregards the circumstances in which the offence was committed, can only be regarded as ‘harsh, unjust and unfair’.

The judgment goes on to say that the concept of a ‘just, fair and reasonable’ law has been read into the guarantees under Article 14 (Equality before law) and Article 21 (Protection of life and personal liberty) of the Constitution.  A law that imposes an irreversible penalty such as death is ‘repugnant to the concept of right and reason’.  Therefore, Section 27 (3) of the Arms Act, 1959 is unconstitutional.

Section 27(3) is also unconstitutional in that it deprives the judiciary from discharging its duty of judicial review by barring it from using the power of discretion in the sentencing procedure.

What happens now?

Under Article 13 of the Constitution, laws inconsistent with the Constitution shall be null and void.  Therefore, Section 27(3) of the Arms Act, 1959 shall now stand amended.  Courts shall have the discretion to impose a lesser sentence.

It is noteworthy that the Home Minister had also introduced a Bill in the Lok Sabha on the 12th of December, 2011 to amend the Arms Act, 1959.  The Bill seeks to remove the words ‘shall be punishable with death’ and replace these with ‘shall be punishable with death or imprisonment for life and shall also be liable to fine’.  This Bill is currently being scrutinized by the Standing Committee.

Notes:

1) Section 7 of the Arms Act, 1959:

“7. Prohibition of acquisition or possession, or of manufacture or sale, of prohibited arms or prohibited ammunition.  No person shall –

(a) acquire, have in his possession or carry; or

(b) use, manufacture, sell, transfer, convert, repair, test or prove; or

(c) expose or offer for sale or transfer or have in his possession for sale, transfer, conversion, repair, test or proof;

any prohibited  arms  or  prohibited ammunition unless he has been specially authorised by the Central Government in this behalf.”

2) Section 27(3) of the Arms Act, 1959:

“27(3) Whoever uses any prohibited arms or prohibited ammunition or does any act in contravention of section 7 and such use or act results in the death of any other person, shall be punishable with death.”

Sources:

Arms Act, 1959;  Supreme Court judgment

Requirement of Sanction

February 1st, 2012 4 comments

Criminal laws in India by way of “sanctions” allow for protective discrimination in favour of public officials.[1]  Under various laws, sanctions are required to investigate and prosecute public officials.  Over the past 15 years these provisions of law have been revisited by the judiciary and the legislature.  Recently the Supreme Court in the Subramanian Swamy Case has suggested the concept of a deemed sanction.  We look at the history of the requirement of sanction under criminal laws.

Requirement of sanction to investigate certain public servants of the union government was introduced through a government notification[2].   The Criminal Procedure Code 1973 and the Prevention of Corruption Act 1988 provide that to prosecute a public servant, permission or sanction has to be secured from the government (central or state) for which the official works.

Arguments that are often advanced in favour of such sanctions are that these ensure that (a) frivolous and vexatious cases are not filed, (b) public officials are not harassed, and (c) the efficacy of administrative machinery is not tampered with.  Further, the requirement of sanction to investigate was also defended by the government before the Supreme Court in certain cases.  In Vineet Narain vs. Union of India 1997[3], the government had argued that the CBI may not have the requisite expertise to determine whether the evidence was sufficient for filing a prima facie case.  It was also argued that the Act instituting the CBI, Delhi Special Police Establishment Act 1946 (DSPE Act), granted the power of superintendence, and therefore direction, of the CBI to the central government.   The Court in this case struck down the requirement of sanction to investigate.  It held that “supervision” by the government could not extend to control over CBI’s investigations.  As for prosecution, the Court affixed a time frame of three months to grant sanction.  However, there was no clarity on what was to be done if sanction was not granted within such time.

Following that judgment, the DSPE Act was amended in 2003, specifically requiring the CBI to secure a sanction before it investigated certain public servants.  More recently, the Lokpal and Lokayukta Bill, 2011 that is pending before the Rajya Sabha, removed the requirement of sanction to investigate and prosecute public servants in relation to corruption.

Recently, Mr. Subramanian Swamy approached the Supreme Court for directions on his request for sanction to prosecute Mr. A Raja in relation to the 2G Scam.  As per the Supreme Court, judgment in Subramanian Swamy vs. Dr. Manmohan Singh & Anr, Mr. Swamy’s request was pending with the department for over 16 months.  The Supreme Court held that denial of a timely decision on grant of sanction is a violation of due process of law (Right to equality before law read with Right to life and personal liberty).  The Court reiterated the three month time frame for granting sanctions.  It suggested that Parliament consider that in case the decision is not taken within three months, sanction would be deemed to be granted.  The prosecution would then be responsible for filing the charge sheet within 15 days of the expiry of this period.


[1] Subramanian Swamy vs. Dr. Manmohan Singh & Anr. Civil Appeal No. 1193 of 2012 dated January 31, 2012

[2] Single Directive, No. 4.7.3

[3] AIR 1998 SC 889