Supreme Court of India
Jolly George Verghese & Anr vs The Bank Of Cochin on 4 February, 1980
The position has been spelt out correctly in a Kerala ruling on the same point. In that case, a judgment-debtor was sought to be detained under O. 21, r. 37 C.P.C. although he was seventy and had spent away on his illness the means he once had to pay off the decree. The observations there made are apposite and may bear exception:
The last argument which consumed most of the time of the long arguments of learned counsel for the appellant is that the International Covenants on Civil and Political Rights are part of the law of the land and have to be respected by the Municipal Courts. Article 11, which I have extracted earlier, grants immunity from imprisonment to indigent but honest judgment-debtors.
The march of civilization has been a story of progressive subordination of property rights to personal freedom; and a by-product of this subordination finds noble expression in the declaration that "No one shall be imprisoned merely on the ground of inability to fulfil a contractual obligation." This revolutionary change in the regard for the human person is spanned by the possible shock that a resuscitated Shylock would suffer if a modern Daniel were to come to judgment when the former asks the pound of flesh from Antonio's bosom according to the tenor of the bond, by flatly refusing the mayhem on the debtor, because the inability of an impecunious oblige shall not imperil his liberty or person under the new dispensation proclaimed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Viewed in this progressive perspective we may examine whether there is any conflict between s. 51 CPC and Article 11 of the International Covenants quoted above. As already indicated by me, this latter provision only interdicts imprisonment if that is sought solely on the ground of inability to fulfil the obligation. Section 51 also declares that if the debtor has no means to pay he cannot be arrested and detained. If he has and still refuses or neglects to honour his obligation or if he commits acts of bad faith, he incurs the liability to imprisonment under s. 51 of the Code, but this does not violate the mandate of Article
11. However, if he once had the means but now has not or if he has money now on which there are other pressing claims, it is violative of the spirit of Article 11 to arrest and confine him in jail so as to coerce him into payment..........
The judgment dealt with the effect of international law and the enforceability of such law at the instance of individuals within the State, and observed:
The remedy for breaches of International Law in general is not to be found in the law courts of the State because International Law per se or proprio vigore has not the force or authority of civil law, till under its inspirational impact actual legislation is undertaken. I agree that the Declaration of Human Rights merely sets a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations but cannot create a binding set of rules. Member States may seek, through appropriate agencies, to initiate action when these basic rights are violated; but individual citizens cannot complain about their breach in the municipal courts even if the country concerned has adopted the covenants and ratified the operational protocol. The individual cannot come to Court but may complain to the Human Rights Committee, which, in turn, will set in motion other procedures. In short, the basic human rights enshrined in the International Covenants above referred to, may at best inform judicial institutions and inspire legislative action within member-States; but apart from such deep reverence, remedial action at the instance of an aggrieved individual is beyond the area of judicial authority.
While considering the international impact of international covenants on municipal law, the decision concluded:
Indeed the construction I have adopted of s. 51, CPC has the flavour of Article 11 of the Human Rights Covenants. Counsel for the appellant insisted that law and justice must be on speaking terms-by justice he meant, in the present case that a debtor unable to pay must not be detained in civil prison. But my interpretation does put law and justice on speaking terms. Counsel for the respondent did argue that International Law is the vanishing point of jurisprudence is itself vanishing in a world where humanity is moving steadily, though slowly, towards a world order, led by that intensely active, although yet ineffectual body, the United Nations Organisation. Its resolutions and covenants mirror the conscience of mankind and insominate, within the member States, progressive legislation; but till this last step of actual enactment of law takes place, the citizen in a world of sovereign States, has only inchoate rights in the domestic Courts under these international covenants.
While dealing with the impact of the Dicean rule of law on positive law, Hood Phillips wrote-and this is all that the Covenant means now for Indian courts administering municipal law The significance of this kind of doctrine for the English lawyer is that it finds expression in three ways. First, it influences legislators. The substantive law at any given time may approximate to the "rule of law", but this only at the will of Parliament. Secondly, its principles provide canons of interpretation which express the individualistic attitude of English courts and of those courts which have followed the English tradition. They give an indication of how the law will be applied and legislation interpreted. English courts lean in favour of the liberty of the citizen, especially of his person: they interpret strictly statutes which purport to diminish that liberty, and presume that Parliament does not intend to restrict private rights in the absence of clear words to the contrary.
The positive commitment of the States Parties ignites legislative action at home but does not automatically make the Covenant an enforceable part of the corpus juris of India.
Indeed, the Central Law Commission, in its Fifty Fourth Report, did cognise the Covenant, while dealing with s. 51 C.P.C.:
The question to be considered is, whether this mode of execution should be retained on the statute book, particularly in view of the provision in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights prohibiting imprisonment for a mere non-performance of contract.
The Law Commission, in its unanimous report, quoted the key passages from the Kerala ruling referred to above and endorsed its ratio. 'We agree with this view' said the Law Commission and adopting that meaning as the correct one did not recommend further change on this facet of t