The Court, today, has suspended hearings to respect the passing of Justice Mohan Shantanagoudar. J. Shantanagoudar was set to retire in two years, in 2023.
In this post, we look at J. Shantanagoudar’s most notable judgments while on the bench. Over his four-year term at the Supreme Court, he has ruled on important cases around consumer rights and the criminal justice system. One of his most famous opinions was the dissent on payment of compensation for land acquisition.
Small Farmers and Bank Locker Customers are Consumers
Two of J. Shantanagoudar’s judgments have expanded consumer rights to farmers and banking customers. In M/s Nandan Biomatrix Ltd v. S Ambika Devi, he held that small farmers were consumers, not operating ‘for commercial purpose’. So a seed company which did not buy back the crop as it had promised was liable as a service provider. This provides subsistence farmers the right to compensation from companies under consumer law.
In Amitabha Dasgupta v. United Bank of India, J. Shantanagoudar dealt with customers who hired lockers from banks. Compensation under contract for missing contents would depend on the evidence in each case. However, if the bank had been at fault in allotting or operating lockers, they were still liable as a service provider under consumer law. He directed the Reserve Bank of India to lay down rules on the correct practice within 6 months. In the meantime he issued guidance on ensuring banks utilise technology and protect consumer property and data when providing locker services.
The Criminal Justice System: Bail, Mental Health, Democratic Policing
J. Shantanagoudar’s judgments have strengthened the human rights of accused and convicted persons in criminal cases.
In M. Ravindran v. Intelligence Officer, writing for a three-judge bench, Justice Shantanagoudar held that the right to default bail is not exhausted if a subsequent complaint is filed while the bail application is pending. The safeguard provided by ‘default bail’ under Section 167(2) CrPC is inherently linked to Article 21 of the Indian Constitution, 1950. The bench held that the delay in investigation or any other reason cannot be used by the prosecution to exhaust this provision. The court emphasised how bail was linked to the right to life and personal liberty.
The three-judge bench in Accused X v. The State of Maharashtra, consisting of N.V. Ramana, M. Shantanagoudar and Indira Banerjee, ruled on protecting the mental health of a convicted prisoner. The bench held that a convicted prisoner suffering from post-conviction mental illnesses was unable to understand the consequences of his/her actions. Article 20(1) requires a convict to know of the criminal act committed by them, and the subsequent consequence, i.e., sentence, failing which the purpose of the criminal justice system is hindered. Prisoners who develop mental illnesses are unable to assess the implications of their sentencing. A death sentence therefore loses its meaning, and becomes violative of Article 21. The Court held that a death sentence cannot be carried out when the prisoner develops mental health issues in prison.
In Yashwant v. State of Mahrashtra, a bench with Justices Ramana and Shantanagoudar increased the sentence of police officers involved in custodial torture and death. They stressed the need for “democratic policing, wherein crime control is not the only end”. Law enforcement officers have a duty not just to the accused, but also to the State and to the community at large. They must act in a manner that does not deter public confidence in the criminal justice system.
Habeas Corpus: A Woman Released from Shelter Home; Writ Cannot be Used to Enforce Foreign Orders
The writ of habeas corpus is used to order release from unlawful detentions. J. Shantanagoudar was part of a two-judge bench that held that a major woman can ‘live as per her wish’. The bench ordered her release from a shelter home.
In Nithya Anand v. NCT of Delhi, J. Shantanagoudar concurred with J Dipak Misra. The petitioner had received child custody as per a UK Court’s order. The bench held that the remedy of a writ of habeas corpus cannot be used to enforce a foreign court’s order against a person in that foreign jurisdiction.
Miscellany: Judgments on Abetment of Suicide, Maintenance & Review Petitions
Concurring with J. Nariman, J. Shantanagoudar held that if the husband is acquitted under S. 498A IPC for cruelty, he cannot be prosecuted for abetment of suicide of his wife under S. 113A IPC. They also held that harassment is of a lesser degree than cruelty. A finding of harassment cannot lead to a conclusion of abetment of suicide.
A Division Bench with J. Shantanagoudar held that 25 percent of the husband's net salary would be just and proper to be awarded as maintenance to the wife. He also sat on the bench with J. Misra who pronounced that High Courts should deal with review petitions expeditiously. The time taken should be reasonable: four years was too long.
J. Shantanagoudar was one of the nine judges on the Bench formed by former CJI SA Bobde to examine the larger questions of faith, religious freedom and essential religious practices. The hearing, however, never took off.
Land Acquisition Quashed if Compensation is Delayed
In 2018, J Shantanagoudar dissented in the land acquisition case of Indore Development Authority v. Shailendra (Dead). The majority comprised Justices Arun Mishra and AK Goel. They held that ‘payment’ for the State to acquire land was complete once it was tendered (offered) to the landowner. Delays in the transfer of the amount due to litigation or similar reasons did not violate the acquisition.
J Shantanagoudar instead upheld the precedent in Pune Municipal Corporation. A 5 year delay in transfer of money would mean the acquisition would be quashed. Further, he argued that a three-judge bench cannot overrule another three-judge precedent. The issue raised controversy and had to be referred to a five-judge Constitution Bench.