In a significant development, the Supreme Court has issued notice on the Meghalaya government’s challenge to a High Court order that determined punitive compensation for custodial deaths based on the age of the victims. The three-Judge Bench, comprising Justices BR Gavai, Sanjay Karol, and Sandeep Mehta, has stayed the High Court’s judgment, directing the state to pay compensation determined by the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC).

Factual Background:
The legal battle originated from a suo motu public interest litigation initiated by the Meghalaya High Court to identify next of kin of prisoners who died in custody between 2012 and 2015. The NHRC recommended a compensation policy for custodial violence and death, prompting the Meghalaya government to publish a notification in December 2022. The notification set compensation amounts for unnatural custodial deaths, which the High Court later deemed inadequate.

High Court’s Observations:
The High Court critically assessed the NHRC’s recommendation, pointing out its reliance on a similar notification by the Haryana government. It found the classification in the Haryana notification, based on the cause of death, to be “unconscionable” and emphasized that suitable compensation should be both compensatory and punitive to act as a deterrent. The court, relying on the principle that custody-related deaths are unnatural unless proven otherwise, categorically rejected the State’s reliance on the principle of strict liability.

The High Court also noted a previous case where compensation of Rs.15 lakhs was awarded for a custodial death due to police brutality. It argued that the compensation should deter the state and not be an amount the state is merely “happy to pay off.” The court firmly stated that a death in custody tarnishes the image of a civilized state.

State of Meghalaya’s Case:
In response, the Meghalaya government contends that the High Court overstepped by fixing compensation rules based on its subjective assessment, interfering with the state’s policy formulated in line with NHRC recommendations. The state disputes the High Court’s adoption of age criteria for compensation claims, arguing that compensation for custodial death should be for the loss of the deceased’s life and not future earning capacity.

The State asserts that the previous case involving Meena Marak is not a precedent on compensation quantum and highlights the specific circumstances of that case. It challenges the court’s application of in-rem rules for compensation, arguing that the court cannot fix compensation despite the existence of an executive policy.

Legal Arguments:
The crux of the legal dispute revolves around the court’s authority to fix compensation rules and the adequacy of the state’s compensation policy. The State argues that compensation can be case-specific and should not be subject to in-rem orders. It contends that NHRC’s recommendation acknowledges limited state liability, which is applicable only in cases of unnatural deaths resulting from unwarranted acts/omissions by state officers.

The Supreme Court’s intervention and stay on the High Court’s order mark a crucial juncture in the legal battle over compensation for custodial deaths in Meghalaya. The debate over whether the state’s policy aligns with NHRC recommendations and the appropriate quantum of compensation adds complexity to the case. As the legal proceedings unfold, the outcome of this case is poised to have far-reaching implications for the handling of custodial deaths across the country, setting potential precedents for compensation policies and judicial assessments in similar cases.

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