The Supreme Court on Friday asked the court across the country to zealously safeguard the liberty of citizens against selective harassment by the State, as consequences of incarceration are too serious.
A bench of Justices D Y Chandrachud and Indira Banerjee said liberty is not a gift for the few and deprivation of liberty even for a single day is one day too many.
The court said the Chief Justices of the High Court must ensure access to justice was democratised and equitably allocated.
It said the courts, including of district level, must ensure proper enforcement of criminal law and that the law does not become a ruse for targeted harassment.
"Liberty across human eras is as tenuous as tenuous can be. Liberty survives by the vigilance of her citizens, on the cacophony of the media and in the dusty corridors of courts alive to the rule of (and not by) law. Yet, much too often, liberty is a casualty when one of these components is found wanting," the bench said.
Giving detailed reasonings of its November 11 order granting interim bail to Republic TV's Editor-in-chief Arnab Goswami in an abetment to suicide case, the bench expressed "anguish" that the Bombay High Court, by declining relief to him, abdicated its constitutional duty and function as a protector of liberty.
The court noted the specific case of Goswami was that he has been targeted because his opinions on his television channel are unpalatable to authority.
Though whether he has established a case for quashing the FIR is something on which the High Court will take a final view, it has, however, failed to make even a prima facie evaluation of the FIR, the bench said.
Maintaining that the HC did have power under Article 226 of the Constitution to give interim protection, the bench said, "The doors of this court cannot be closed to a citizen who is able to establish prima facie that the instrumentality of the State is being weaponized for using the force of criminal law."
Justice Chandrachud, who authored the 55-page judgement on behalf of the bench, quoted Justice Krishna Iyer's words that the basic rule of our criminal justice system is bail, not jail.
Referring to the National Judicial Data Grid, showing pendency of 91,568 bail applications in HCs and 1,96,861 in district courts, besides 12,66,133 writ petitions and appeals in HCs, the bench said there is a pressing need for courts across the judicial hierarchy in India to remedy the institutional problem of bail applications not being heard and disposed of with expedition.
"It is our earnest hope that our courts will exhibit acute awareness to the need to expand the footprint of liberty and use our approach as a decision-making yardstick for future cases involving the grant of bail," the bench said.
The bench extended interim protection granted to Goswami on November 11 till the HC decided his plea for quashing the FIR and four weeks thereafter to enable him to avail legal remedies.