“A death in custody is a slur on a civilised State and completely unacceptable”; Meghalaya HC fixes quantum of compensation for custodial deaths

meghalaya high court

Meghalaya High Court: In a suo motu Public Interest Litigation (‘PIL’) initiated pursuant to the directions of the Supreme Court in Inhuman Conditions in 1382 Prisons, In re, (2017) 10 SCC 658, wherein the Chief Justice of the High Courts were directed to register a suo motu public interest petition to identify the next of kin of the prisoners who died an unnatural death as revealed by the National Crime Records Bureau (‘NCRB’) during the period between 2012 and 2015 and even thereafter, and award suitable compensation, unless adequate compensation had already been awarded, the Division Bench of Sanjib Banerjee, C.J. and H. S. Thangkhiew, J. fixed the amount of compensation on the basis of age of the deceased prisoner.

It was brought out during the course of the proceedings of the present PIL that there were 53 custodial deaths in the State of Meghalaya since 2012. It was found that out of the 53 instances of custodial deaths in the State since the year 2012, a total of 25 cases are found to be due to natural causes and the remaining 28 were found to be cases of unnatural deaths.

The Bench said that while the State has every right to arrest a person during an investigation, subject to the procedure established by law, or depriving a convict of his liberty by reason of the sentence that he has suffered, when a citizen or any other person is in the custody of the State, the State is responsible for his well-being. Further the Court said that if such person dies while in the State’s custody, unless the State establishes that the cause of death was natural, it will be inferred that the person died an unnatural death.

Regarding the award of compensation as directed by the Supreme Court in Inhuman Conditions in 1382 Prisons (supra), the Court said that the suitability of the compensation would have two aspects: there should be a measure of damages of the life being snatched long before death may have been due; and, the quantum of compensation should be such that it would act as a deterrent since in a civilised society there ought to be no unnatural death while in custody. The Court stated that “the compensation must be both compensatory and punitive so as to act as a deterrent”.

The Court also noted that in June, 2021, the Haryana Government notified rates of compensation by making a classification based on the cause of death while in custody, such as whether the person died on account of a quarrel among inmates or due to torture by officials or due to negligence or by suicide and the like. It was also notified that if death occurred due to natural causes or while trying to escape from the correctional home or from custody, no compensation would be payable. Further, the Court also referred to the National Human Rights Commission’s order, which endorsed the Haryana Governments notification, requesting all the States, Union Territories to bring such policies as framed by the Haryana Government. The Court also noted that the State had also come up with a notification for compensation on the similar lines of the Haryana model.

The Court questioned the quantification in the Haryana Government’s model on the basis of the classification of the cause of death of the persons in custody. The Court also referred to Meena S. Marak v. State of Meghalaya, 2018 SCC OnLine Megh 17, whereby Rs. 15 lakhs compensation was awarded for the death of an 18-year-old boy, who died due to the brutality indulged in by the State police. The Court said that once such standard has already been set in the State, of the award of compensation of Rs.15 lakh for an 18-year-old dying because of police brutality while in custody, five years down the line there is no good reason for reducing the quantum. Hence, the Court said that the maximum amount of compensation of Rs. 7.5 Lakhs decided by the State based on Haryana model, may not hurt the State as much as paying the compensation of Rs.15 lakh may have.

The Bench stated that “a death in custody is a slur on a civilised State and completely unacceptable”. The Court also said that it was distressing to note the number of deaths of under-trial prisoners as the investigating agency used third-degree methods to get information from the arrested person rather than go out in the field and investigate the matter. The Court said that if compensation for custodial death was pegged in lines with police brutalities and inhuman treatment of persons in custody, the State will bleed to make the payment, which the State will not be happy to pay off.

Absolute Liability of State

The Court said that 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, 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. Further, the Court said that the State is liable for the actions of its officers and employees, however in several cases exuberant officials would go beyond the call of duty and in such cases, the State will remain liable for the acts and conduct of its officials, but the State will also be free to proceed against such officials and even extract the compensation that it has to pay from such officials in accordance with law.

Classification of deceased prisoners

The Court also said that the mindless adoption of the classification indicated in the Haryana notification by the State was abhorrent and obnoxious. The Court said that it is deemed fit and proper to classify the victims/ deceased prisoners who have died in custody on basis of their age and hence, into three categories, below 30; between 30 and 45 and above 45. Relying on Meena S. Marak (supra), the Court said that as the sum of Rs. 15 Lakhs was already established as compensation amount, the same sum can be taken as compensation payable for death in custody to the next of kin of a person age below 30. 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.

Accordingly, the Court said that the compensation fixed by the State in the notification was inadequate and hence, the said notification was set aside.


Conclusively, the Court also said that the next and kin of the deceased prisoners till date since 2012, 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 said decided amount for compensation will hold good till the end of the year 2024, whereupon it will be increased by Rs.1.5 lakh at the highest level and by Rs.1 lakh each at the two other levels for the next period of three years. It was also said by the Court that the quantum of compensation should be enhanced every three years. The Court also directed that where the next of kin may not be interested in contesting the proceedings or even collecting the compensation upon the death of the relevant person, in such cases, the State will be obliged to put in the money into the Cancer Department of the Civil Hospital in Shillong for the purpose of augmentation of equipment at such fledgling facility, the Court directed.

The Court also clarified that in cases of natural death in custody, no compensation would be payable at all.

[In Re Suo motu custodial violence and other matters relating to prison conditions v. State of Meghalaya, PIL No. 9 of 2017, Decided on 28-08-2023]

*Judgment by: Chief Justice Sanjib Banerjee

Advocates who appeared in this case :

For the Petitioner: Dr. N. Mozika, Amicus Curiae with Advocate S. Rumthao

For the Respondents: Additional Advocate General K. Khan, Additional Senior Government Advocate A.H. Kharwanlang, Government Advocate S. Ain, Government Advocate S. Laloo, Government Advocate J.N. Rynjah, Advocate S. Dey, Advocate K. Baruah,P. Agarwal, Advocate S.A. Sheikh, Advocate A.H. Hazarika, Advocate J. Shylla, Advocate D. Dkhar

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