Case Citation

1981 SCR (2) 408, 1981 SCC (1) 627


Bhagwati, P.N.

Decided on


Relevant Act/Section/Article

Articles 21 & 22 of the Constitution of India, 1950, Sections 50, 56, 57,167, etc. of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973.


With about 70% of the country’s population living below the poverty line and perhaps more legally illiterate, it will be difficult for the judiciary of the world’s largest democracy to bring justice to everyone. Legal aid and representation are important elements in the legal remedy of wrongdoing by the guilty, and in countries like India, poor living conditions and financial constraints make it difficult to find oneself before the country’s justice system. Lack of representation is common. The provision of free legal aid under Article 39A1 of the Indian Constitution, introduced by the 42nd Amendment to the Indian Constitution, is encouraged. But the inclusion of such a provision came at the cost of, an insight into, despicable injustices committed in the past.

Facts of the case

Between 1979 and 1980 there were reports that police poured acid into the eyes of 33 pre-trial detainees in Bhagalpur, Bihar. It was reportedly the worst case of police torture and has come to be known as one of the darkest times in independent India’s history. Bhagalpur Blindings case is another name for this case. Prisoners on trial were blinded by the police and brought before a judge, who failed to investigate any injuries intentionally or unintentionally inflicted on the defendant, and the district and session courts judges visited the alleged Bhagalpur Jail only once a year to review prison conditions. The blind prisoners were later admitted to the Rajendra Prasad Eye Institute in New Delhi, but their eyesight was severely impaired and could not be restored by surgery or treatment. Several briefs were submitted to the Supreme Court and the Court decided to hear them all together.

Issues of the Case

  • Whether the state was liable to pay compensation to blinded prisoners for violation of the fundamental right under Article 212 of the Constitution.
  • Whether the state failed to provide legal representation to the accused.
  • Whether the magistrate failed to discharge his duty of offering free legal aid to the
  • accused.

Petitioner Arguments

Articles 21 and 223 require the state to provide free legal aid to all those in need. It is important to ensure that those accused of crimes receive a proper, fair, and just trial. Article 22(1) expressly guarantees an individual’s fundamental right to be represented by an attorney of their choice. Detainees were blinded intentionally and it violated their constitutional right to live with dignity under Article 21. In many cases, the accused were not brought before judicial authorities at their first appearance and remained in prison without judicial authorities ordering pretrial detention of the accused.

Article 21 implies an obligation to compensate a person who has been deprived of life or personal liberty by means other than those provided for by law. As a result, the state is obliged to compensate blind prisoners. Furthermore, it may not be safe for prisoners released from the Eye Institute to return to Bhagalpur. Arrangements should be made to have them housed in New Delhi at the state’s expense.

In some cases, the accused were not handed over to judicial authorities within 24 hours of arrest, which is a violation of Article 22(2) of the Constitution and Sections 56 and 57 of the 1973 CrPC4. They also did not investigate prisoners for “eye injuries.” Most of the blind prisoners said in statements to the Registrar that they had never been brought before a judicial officer, implying that the judicial officers merely signed the review order. In other cases, the accused were detained without remand. District and session magistrates did not inspect Bhagalpur’s central prison at any point in 1980. This is in clear violation of Supreme Court rules regarding joint and personal routine visits to prisons by District Judges, Sessions Magistrates, and Chiefs of Police. The independent judiciary fails to protect constitutional rights.

Respondent Arguments

None of the detainees sought legal assistance. As a result, the judge did not ask if he wanted legal representation at state expense. Financial constraints make it difficult for states to provide free legal aid. The state already bears many costs. As a result, it has become financially and administratively impossible to provide free legal assistance to the accused. It is not yet clear that the prisoner was blinded by the police and the investigation is still ongoing. There is currently no evidence that the state violated the victim’s right to life and personal freedoms beyond the judicial process. The defendant’s testimony alone cannot be trusted. It’s just hearsay evidence with no legal basis. An investigation into the pre-trial detention of suspects by police officers is ongoing. Therefore, the conclusion that the state is responsible at this time is not valid. Even if the police blinded someone and there was a violation of the fundamental rights enshrined in article 21, the state could not be held responsible for compensating the victims. There is no indication of improper conduct by the judicial officer. The blind person’s testimony to the Registrar that he was not brought before judicial authorities have not been substantiated. The accused’s unilateral testimony should not be taken seriously.


Courts are in the constitutional obligation to provide free legal assistance to the accused at all stages of a trial if the defendant suffers poverty or hardship to achieve the goals of justice., ruled that it failed to do so. The court must inform the third judge and all courts at large that the judicial officer is entitled to render legal aid free of charge to the accused, if necessary, at the cost of instructing the state to pay for it. The court barred draconian action against the accused who failed to appear before a judge within 24 hours and called on state police to step up vigilance going forward. The court also held the state responsible for its egregious encroachment on the lives and liberties of prisoners by the police and ordered the state to compensate the victims, since the police are directly employed by the state and are also the means of the state.5

Analysis of the Judgement

The court began its argument by expressing its disappointment that the defendants were not granted or provided legal assistance by the judge simply because they did not request it. In the case of Hussainara Khatoon v. Secretary of the Interior6, the court held that the right to free legal advice is a fundamental right of a person accused of a criminal offense even if the defendant can afford it. The Court’s decision, in this case, is a clear law as illustrated by binding case law under Article 14(1) of the Indian Constitution. And the Court has expressed its displeasure that most states in the country have failed to heed its decisions or make efforts in that direction. The submissions made by the state that the financial condition of the state was not good enough to provide legal assistance to the accused, cannot be used as an excuse to avoid responsibility. To back this up, the court in the case of Rhem v. Malcolm7 said, “No government is permitted by law to deprive its citizens of their constitutional rights based on poverty.”

It quotes Justice Black in Jackson v. Bishop, who said, “Humane considerations and constitutional requirements are not to be measured by dollar considerations in this day and age.” The court emphasizes that the constitutional obligation to provide free legal aid to an accused applies not only when the trial begins, but also when remand orders are issued and when the accused is presented before the court from time to time. It makes use of the fact that approximately 70% of people living in rural areas are illiterate, and even more are legally uneducated and unaware of their legal rights and entitlements, which compensates for the additional burden on the state and the judiciary to ensure that such people are served justice. The legal aid movement is mentioned, and it is claimed that leaving the practice of rights to the sole efforts of an uneducated populace would make a mockery of the legal system and that legal aid would end up being a mere paper promise. The court orders that prisoners be transferred to the Blind Relief Association of Delhi after they are released from the hospital, as it may not be possible to return them to jail, where their safety may be jeopardized. It also finds that some of the accused were not brought before a magistrate within 24 hours of their arrest, which is a violation of every person’s legal right under Article 2288 and Sections 56 and 57 of the CrPC 1973. It is also shocking that the state continues to detain the accused without remand of orders, which violates the personal liberty guaranteed by Article 21.

The court condemns the police for such fundamental violations of arrest and detention rules and warns them not to repeat the same mistakes. As to whether Bihar is responsible for blinding detainees, the court was right for making them accountable that it was because the police officers were public servants in Bihar and were working for the state. The Court was also disappointed to learn that an inspection of Bhagalpur Prison by the District Court and the present court in 1980 had not taken place in violation of Supreme Court rules, and asked the High Court to thoroughly consider the matter and ordered law enforcement to conduct a thorough investigation to ensure law enforcement. The whole judgment is quite impressive and right. The court has given due regard to the principles of natural justice and made decisions that empower the poor and marginalized while bringing the guilty to conviction.


It is one of the most commendable decisions that has been given by the Hon’ble Supreme Court. The decision was made by Justice P.N. Bhagwati, a pioneer in the judicial movement and one of the Supreme Court’s most prominent jurists. This is a brutal and shameful way in which the state police, paid and stationed solely to maintain peace and harmony, and public safety, exercise their power to hold the lower courts wrong. On the one hand, the decision remains as important as it is today, providing a strong precedent and hopefully serving as a strong deterrent against similar events in the future. The ruling strongly supports the provision of free legal aid and brings justice to those who cannot afford it, as the court articulated in the Hussainara Khatun case.


  1. The Constitution of India,1950, Art. 39 A
  2. The Constitution of India,1950, Art. 21
  3. The Constitution of India,1950, Art. 22
  4. The Code of Criminal Procedure,1973, Sec. 56 and 57
  5. Khatri vs State Of Bihar 1981 SCR (2) 408, 1981 SCC (1) 627
  6. Hussainara Khatoon vs. Home Secretary, State of Bihar 1979 AIR 1369 1979 SCR (3) 532 1980 SCC (1) 98
  7. Rhem v. Malcolm, 377 F. Supp. 995 (S.D.N.Y. 1974)
  8. The Constitution of India,1950, Art. 228

This case commentary is authored by Jay Kumar Gupta, a student of the School of Law, NMIMS Bangalore, currently in the second year of BBA LL.B.(Hons.).

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