Hussainara Khatoon (IV) v Home Secretary, State of Bihar [(1980) 1 SCC 98]
This case dealt, with the rights of the under trial prisoners on habeas corpus petitions which disclosed a very shocking state of affairs in regard to administration of justice in the State of Bihar. An alarmingly large number of men and women, children, were behind prison bars for years awaiting for their trial in courts of law. The offences with which some of them were charged were trivial, which even if proved, would not warrant punishment for more than a few months, perhaps a year or two, and yet they remained in jail, deprived of their freedom, for periods ranging from 3 to 10 years without even as much as their trial having commenced. The Hon’ble Supreme Court ordered immediate release of these under trials many of whom were kept in jail without trial or even without a charge.

The Hon’ble Supreme Court held that if an under-trial prisoner is kept in jail for a period longer than the maximum term of imprisonment which could have been awarded on his conviction and if he is not offered free legal aid, where he is too poor to engage a lawyer, provided the lawyer engaged by the State is not objected to by the accused. The right of free legal services is an essential ingredient of ‘reasonable, fair and just’ procedure for a person accused of an offence and it must be held implicit in the guarantee of Art. 21. This is a constitutional right of every accused person who is unable to engage a lawyer and secure legal services, because of poverty, indigence or incommunicado situation.

Where the petitioner succeeds in establishing his case, the Court would grant him any relief which is necessary to afford proper justice, or to prevent manifest injustice regardless of technicalities such as to issue directions to the Government and other appropriate authorities, as may be necessary, to secure to a prisoner his constitutional rights.

The Hon’ble Supreme Court also held that the state cannot be permitted to deny the constitutional right of speedy trial to the accused on the ground that the State has no adequate financial resources to incur the necessary expenditure needed for improving the administrative and judicial apparatus with a view to improving speedy trial.

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