The Supreme Court has intervened in response to the Meghalaya government’s challenge against a Meghalaya High Court decision that prescribed varying levels of punitive compensation for custodial deaths based on the age of the victim. The three-judge bench of Justices BR Gavai, Sanjay Karol, and Sandeep Mehta stayed the Meghalaya High Court’s judgment but directed the state to pay compensation determined by the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC).
Background and Legal Proceedings
The Meghalaya High Court initiated a suo motu public interest litigation following a Supreme Court directive related to inhuman conditions in prisons. This litigation aimed to identify the next of kin of prisoners who died unnatural deaths in state custody between 2012 and 2015, as reported by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), and award suitable compensation.
During the proceedings, it was revealed that 53 custodial deaths had occurred in Meghalaya since 2012, with 25 attributed to natural causes and the remaining 28 deemed unnatural.
In May 2022, the NHRC recommended that all states and union territories formulate a policy for compensating victims and their families in cases of custodial violence and death.
Subsequently, the Meghalaya government published a notification in December 2022, setting the compensation amount for unnatural custodial deaths based on the cause of death. The amount was Rs. 7.5 lakhs for deaths due to quarrels among prisoners or torture by police/prison staff and Rs. 5 lakhs for deaths due to accidents, medical negligence, or suicide.
High Court’s Decision and Subsequent Challenge
Finding this compensation inadequate, the Meghalaya High Court set aside the notification and issued its own order. The High Court directed the state government to pay Rs. 15 lakhs to the next of kin of victims below 30 years of age, Rs. 12 lakhs for those between 30 and 45 years old, and Rs. 10 lakhs for those above 45 years old.
Challenging this decision, the Meghalaya government approached the Supreme Court, leading to the current notice issued by the apex court.
This legal development underscores the complexity and sensitivity surrounding compensations for custodial deaths, with the Supreme Court now tasked to review and adjudicate on the matter.