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 the Section. It is important to notice that, interpretationally speaking, the Law Commission accepted the dynamics of the changed circumstances of the debtor :
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.
This is reiterated by the Commission:
Imprisonment is not to be ordered merely because, like Shylock, the creditor says:
"I crave the law, the penalty and forfeit of my bond."
The law does recognise the principle that "Mercy is reasonable in the time of affliction, as clouds of rain in the time of drought."
We concur with the Law Commission in its construction of s. 51 C.P.C. It follows that quondom affluence and current indigence without intervening dishonesty or bad faith in liquidating his liability can be consistent with Art. 11 of the Covenant, because then no detention is permissible under s. 51, C.P.C.
Equally meaningful is the import of Art. 21 of the Constitution in the context of imprisonment for non-payment of debts. The high value of human dignity and the worth of the human person enshrined in Art. 21, read with Arts. 14 and 19, obligates the State not to incarcerate except under law which is fair, just and reasonable in its procedural essence. Maneka Gandhi's case as developed further in Sunil Batra v. Delhi Administration, Sita Ram & Ors. v. State of U.P. and Sunil Batra v. Delhi Administration lays down the proposition. It is too obvious to need elaboration that to cast a person in prison because of his poverty and consequent inability to meet his contractual liability is appalling. To be poor, in this land of daridra Narayana, is no crime and to 'recover' debts by the procedure of putting one in prison is too flagrantly violative of Art. 21 unless there is proof of the minimal fairness of his wilful failure to pay in spite of his sufficient means and absence of more terribly pressing claims on his means such as medical bills to treat cancer or other grave illness. Unreasonableness and unfairness in such a procedure is inferable from Art. 11 of the Covenant. But this is precisely the interpretation we have put on the Proviso to s. 51 C.P.C. and the lethal blow of Art. 21 cannot strike down the provision, as now interpreted.
The words which hurt are "or has had since the date of the decree, the means to pay the amount of the decree". This implies, superficially read, that if at any time after the passing of an old decree the judgment-debtor had come by some resources and had not discharged the decree, he could be detained in prison even though at that later point of time he was found to be penniless. This is not a sound position apart from being inhuman going by the standards of Art. 11 (of the Covenant) and Art. 21 (of the Constitution). The simple default to discharge is not enough. There must be some element of bad faith beyond mere indifference to pay, some deliberate or recusant disposition in the past or, alternatively, current means to pay the decree or a substantial part of it. The provision emphasises the need to establish not mere omission to pay but an attitude of refusal on demand verging on dishonest disowning of the obligation under the decree. Here considerations of the debtor's other pressing needs and straitened circumstances will play prominently. We would have, by this construction, sauced law with justice, harmonised s. 51 with the Covenant and the Constitution.
The question may squarely arise some day as to whether the Proviso to s. 51 read with O. 21, r. 37 is in excess of the Constitutional mandate in Art. 21 and bad in part. In the present case since we are remitting the matter for reconsideration, the stage has not yet arisen for us to go into the vires, that is why we are desisting from that essay.
In the present case the debtors are in distress because of the blanket distraint of their properties. Whatever might have been their means once, that finding has become obsolete in view of later happenings; Sri Krishnamurthi Iyer for the respondent fairly agreed that the law being what we have stated, it is necessary to direct the executing court to re- adjudicate on the present means of the debtors vis a vis the present pressures of their indebtedness, or alternatively whether they have had the ability to pay but have improperly evaded or postponed doing so or otherwise dishonestly committed acts of bad faith respecting their assets. The court will take note of other honest and urgent pressures on their assets, since that is the exercise expected of the court under the proviso to s. 51. An earlier adjudication will bind if relevant circumstances have not materially changed.