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Open-court relief for jails

Calcutta, Dec. 27: Sakina Bibi’s husband, Abdus, was arrested while loitering intoxicated in Tollygunge on November 12. He had been behind bars since then for what was a “petty” offence.

For more than a month-and-a-half, Sakina ran pillar to post to secure his release but nothing moved as lawyers across the state stayed away from work to protest the hike in court fees.

Abdus walked home free today, to his two ill-fed children who looked up to him for their daily bread.

The criminal courts across the state reopened today after the withdrawal of the 45-day-old ceasework called by the West Bengal Bar Council.

Sakina was one of the thousands who got reunited today with family members who had landed in jails during the lawyers’ strike.

Till yesterday, no inmate could be released from prisons or lock-ups as the lawyers would not stand guarantee to their bail bonds.

The jail department was faced with unforeseen trouble as the jails were getting packed with undertrial prisoners. More than 30 per cent of the 19,000 prisoners in the state were under trial.

Thousands of prisoners, who were still not convicted and had overshot their period of stay in custody, had moved petitions before the courts seeking redress.

“Forty per cent of the 19,000 detainees in the state were released today after they secured bails from different courts,” said a jail department official.

Saradindu Biswas, a key functionary of the council and its former chairman, said though a section of the lawyers was against the withdrawal of the ceasework and some of them had threatened to carry on the strike, there were no untoward incidents after the criminal courts reopened today. Out of 568 courts in the state, 40 per cent are criminal courts.

The civil courts will resume work in the first week of January, after Christmas vacation.

According to a Calcutta High Court record, at least 10,000 fresh cases were filed in the past 46 days. The number of pending cases in the high court alone is over 2.5 lakh. The number of pending cases in the district courts is well over 7 lakh.

When asked whether the “extra charges” taken from litigants during the ceasework period would be refunded, a law department spokesman said: “There is no such provision.”

The litigants who filed cases during the ceasework did so according to the fee structure that came into effect after the Ordinance to increase the court fees was promulgated. The government had, however, rolled back the hike partially in a Bill passed in the Assembly earlier this month and had reportedly agreed to reduce them further.

Confusion prevailed over whether those who filed fresh cases during the strike period would get their “extra” court fees back.

“The chief minister had promised us that the litigants would be returned the extra amount during the discussions we had with him during the last phases of the ceasework,” said Uttam Majumdar, the executive committee chairman of the bar council.

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