In the case of Sunil Batra (1980) when a prisoner Sunil Batra sent a letter to a judge in Supreme court complaining about the torture to one of the inmates Prem Chand, the court converted that letter into habeas corpus write petition.

In the case, the court had the occasion to thoroughly analyze write jurisprudence. While admitting letter into write petition, Iyer Krishna J. said that-

“This case is at once a symptom, a symbol and signpost vis a vis human rights in prison situations. When prison trauma prevails, prison justice must invigilate and hence we broaden our ‘habeas’ jurisdiction. Jurisprudence cannot slumber when the very campuses of punitive justice witness torture”

Blackstone called habeas corpus petition, ‘the great and efficacious writ in all manner of illegal confinement’ and Lord Deman proclaimed in that it had been ‘for ages effectual to an extent never known in any other country.’

The development of Writ jurisprudence in American Judicial System

The American judicial system gave multi dimension to habeas corpus petition. This valuable writ is capable of multiple uses as developed in the American Jurisdiction. Such is the view expressed by many legal writers.

In Harvard Civil Rights and Civil Liberties Law Review, the view has been expressed that beyond the conventional blinkers, courts have been to examine the manner in which an inmate is held or treated during the currency of his sentence.

In American Jurisprudence the writ is not and never has been a static, narrow formalistic remedy. Its scope has grown to achieve its purpose-the protection of individuals against erosion of the right to be free from wrongful restraints on their liberty.

The courts in America have, through the decisional process, brought the rule of law into the prison system pushing back, protanto, the hands-off doctrine.

Coffin v. Richard

In the leading case of Coffin v. Richard, the Court of Appeal observed, delineating the ambit and uses of the writ of habeas corpus:

“The Government has the absolute right to hold prisoners for offences against it but it also has the correlative duty to protect them against assault or injury from any quarter. while so held a prisoner is entitled to the writ of habeas corpus, when, though lawfully in custody, he is deprived of some right to which he is lawfully entitled even in his confinement, the deprivation of which serves to make his imprisonment more burdensome than the law allows or curtails his liberty to a greater extent than the law permits.

When a man possesses a substantial right, the court will be diligent in finding a way to protect it. The fact that a person is legally in prison does not prevent the use of habeas corpus to protect his other inherent rights…. The judge is not limited to a simple remand or discharge of the prisoner’s civil rights be respected…… “

It is significant that the United State Supreme Court has even considered as suitable for habeas relief, censorship of prisoners’ mail and the ban on the use of law students to conduct interviews with prison inmates in matters of legal relief.

In Procunier v. Martinez these two questions fell for decision and the court exercised jurisdiction even in such an internal matter.

Johnson v. Avery

In Johnson v. Avery a disciplinary action was challenged by a prisoner through a writ of habeas corpus. This indicates the extension of the nature of the writ in the American jurisdiction.

Incidentally and interestingly, there is reference to some States in the United States experimenting with programmes of allowing senior law students to service the penitentiaries.

At a later stage, when we concretise definite directives, we may have occasion to refer to the use of senior law students for rendering legal aid to prisoners; and so it is worthwhile extracting a passage from Johnson v. Avery with reference to the Kansas Law School Programme in Prisons at Leavenworth:

“The experience at Leavenworth has shown that there have been very few attacks upon the (prison) administration; that prospective frivolous litigation has been screened out and that where the law school felt the prisoner had a good cause of action relief was granted in a great percentage of cases. A large part of the activity was disposing of long outstanding detainers lodged against the inmates.

In addition, the programme handles civil matters such as domestic relations problems and compensation claims. Even where there has been no tangible success, the fact that the inmate had someone on the outside listen to him and analyse his problems had a most beneficial effect. We think that these programmes have been beneficial not only to the inmates but to the students, the staff and the courts. Incidentally, the presence of law students at the elbow of the prisoner has a preventive effect on ward and warden.”

The dynamics of Habeas Writs

The content of our constitutional liberties being no less, the dynamics of habeas writs they developed help the judicial process here. Indeed. the full potential of Arts. 21, 19, 14, after Maneka Gandhi[1], has been unfolded by this Court in Hoskot and Batra.

Today, human rights jurisprudence in India has a constitutional status and sweep, thanks to Art. 21 so that this Magna Carta may well toll the knell of human bondage beyond civilised limits.

Rulings of this court have highlighted the fact that the framers of our Constitution have freed the powers under Art. 32 from the rigid restraints of the traditional English writs. Flexible directives, even affirmative action moulded to grant relief may realistically be issued and fall within its fertile width.

The jurisdictional dimension is lucently laid down by Subba Rao, J. in Dwarkanath case[2]:

“This article is couched in comprehensive phraseology and it ex facie confers a wide power on the High Courts to reach injustice wherever it is found. The Constitution designedly used a wide language in describing the nature of the power, the purpose for which and the person or authority against whom it can be exercised. It can issue writs in the nature of prerogative writs as understood in England; but the scope of those writs also is widened by the use of the expression “nature” for the said expression does not equate the writs that can be issued in India with those in England, but only draws an analogy from them.

That apart, High Courts can also issue directions, orders or writs other than the prerogative writs. It enables the High Courts to mould the reliefs to meet the peculiar and complicated requirements of this country. Any attempt to equate the scope of the power of the High Court under Art. 226 of the Constitution with that of the English Courts to issue prerogative writs is to introduce the unnecessary procedural restrictions grown over the years in a comparatively small country like England with a unitary form of government into a vast country like India functioning under a federal structure. Such a construction defeats the purpose of the article itself.

Where injustice, verging on inhumanity, emerges from hacking human rights guaranteed in Part III and the victim beseeches the Court to intervene and relieve, this court will be a functional futility as a constitutional instrumentality if its guns do not go into action until the wrong is righted.”

The duty of Courts

The court is not a distant abstraction omnipotent in the books but an activist institution which is the cynosure of public hope. We hold that the court can issue writs to meet the new challenges.

The court has, under Art. 32 and so too under Art. 226, a clear power and, therefore, a public duty to give relief to sentences in prison settings-the next question is the jurisprudential backing for the play of that jurisdiction.

The court has a continuing responsibility to ensure that the constitutional purpose of the deprivation is not defeated by the prison administration. The Court need not adopt a “hands off” attitude in regard to the problem of prison administration. It is all the more so because a convict is in prison under the order and direction of the court.

Under the caption “Retention of Authority over Prisoner by Sentencing JudgeKrantz as noted by Judge Lay in a Judicial Mandate, Trial Magazine (Nov-Dec. 1971) at p. 15:

“It should be the responsibility of the court in imposing the sentence to set forth as it would in any equitable decree, the end to be achieved and the specifics necessary to achieve that purpose. If then, we are to have accountability in the execution of the sentence, courts must make clear what is intended in the imposition of the sentence. Every sentence should be couched in terms similar to a mandatory injunction. In this manner, the penology system is to be held to account if the government does not faithfully execute the order.”

Right, just and fair procedure

Whether inside prison or outside, a person shall not be deprived of his guaranteed freedom save by methods ‘right, just and fair’. Bhagwati J. in Maneka Gandhi observed-

“The principle of reasonableness, which legally as well as philosophically, is an essential element of equality or non-arbitrariness pervades Article 14 like a brooding omnipresence and the procedure contemplated by Article 21 must answer the test of reasonableness in order to be in conformity with Art. 14. It must be “right and just and fair” and not arbitrary, fanciful or oppressive; otherwise it would be no procedure at all and the requirement of Article 21 would not be satisfied.”

Hoskot[3] applied the rule in Maneka Gandhi (supra) to a prison setting and held that “one component of fair procedure is natural justice”.

Prison wears the armour of basic freedom

Thus it is now clear law that a prisoner wears the armour of basic freedom even behind bars and that on breach thereof by lawless officials the law will respond to his distress signals through ‘writ’ aid. The Indian human has a constant companion-the court armed with the Constitution. The weapon is ‘habeas’, the power is Part III and the projectile is Batra, no iron curtain can be drawn between the prisoner and the Constitution.

It is, therefore, the court’s concern, implicit in the power to deprive the sentences of his personal liberty, to ensure that no more and no less than is warranted by the sentence happens. If the prisoner breaks down because of mental torture, psychic pressure or physical R; infliction beyond the licit limits of lawful imprisonment the Prison Administration shall be liable for the excess. On the contrary, if an influential convict is able to buy advantages and liberties to avoid or water down the deprivation implied in the. sentence the Prison Establishment will be called to order for such adulteration or dilution of Court sentences by executive palliation, if unwarranted by law.

Suffice it to say that, so long as judges are invigilators and enforcers of constitutionality and performance auditors of legality, and convicts serve terms in that grim microcosm called prison by the mandate of the courts, a continuing institutional responsibility vests in the system to monitor in the incarceratory process and prevent security ‘excesses’ Jailors are bound by the rule of law and cannot inflict supplementary sentence under disguises or defeat the primary purposes of imprisonment.

The Court has power and responsibility to intervene and protect the prisoner against mayhem, crude or subtle, and may use habeas corpus for enforcing imprison humanism and forbiddance of harsher restraints and heavier severities than the sentence carries.


Sunil Batra vs Delhi Administration,1980 AIR 1579, 1980 SCR (2) 557

[1] Maneka Gandhi v. Union of India [1979] 1 SCC 248

[2] Dwarkanath v. income Tax officer [1965] 3 SCR 536

[3] N. H. Hoskot v. Maharashtra, [1979] 1 SCR 192