Judicial Interpretation Of The Right To Life

Judicial Interpretation Of The Right To Life

The right to life is a fundamental right and is protected under the Constitution in a democracy. Given this constitutional nature, its language is expected to be elastic so that time-relevant meanings can be given to it as lives and communities transform over time. The word “life” has gone through great exercise and in various adjudications its boundaries have been expanded and continue to expand. There are many judgments and explanations on this matter by the superior judiciary of different countries.

In the case of Shehla Zia and Others vs WAPDA, the Supreme Court of Pakistan observed that a person is to be protected from being exposed to the hazards of electromagnetic fields or any other such hazards which may be caused due to the installation of any grid station, power station, setting up of a factory or any other such industrial installation in or near a residential area which may adversely affect health. In another case regarding hazards to health, villagers in the Mahbubnagar district of Andhra Pradesh approached AP High Court against a textile company discharging poisonous chemicals into a stream. Acknowledging access to safe drinking water as within the meaning of “right to life”, the high court directed the district collector to supply 25 liters of safe water to each person in the village. In a somewhat similar civic issue regarding the sewerage system of the city of Bahawalpur, the Supreme Court of Pakistan in PLD 1996 Lahore 592 made an express use of Art. 199(1)(c) of the Constitution to enforce the fundamental right -the right to life- within the meaning of prevention of disease and inconvenience to the citizens through a functioning sewerage system. Court acknowledged the emergency of desilting and cleaning of the sewerage as well as restoring missing manholes. The court directed to immediately recruit workers on an ad hoc basis thereby ignoring the recruitment ban by the government as well as the advertisement process for recruitments, and further directed that no one including the auditors would raise any objection on the recruitments made for this purpose.

The reputation of a person is a very personal attribute and all of us deserve to have a certain degree of reputation and shall have full right to preserve and protect it against any tangible or intangible threats. This is often threatened when a person is arrested for any allegation or simply when demeaning allegations are made, especially in public. The moment a person is arrested, his or her reputation is the very first thing at stake. There are many cases where a person gets arrested and accusations are not proved even after many years. From the moment that a person is arrested till the time he or she is released, his or her life is generally affected with irreparable damage to life and reputation. The Indian Supreme Court in State of Maharashtra vs Public Concern for Governance Trust observed that if a person is sent to jail, even if he or she is subsequently released, his or her reputation may be irreparably tarnished. The court further noted that the reputation of a person is a facet of his or her right to life. Likewise, in Joginder Kumar vs State of UP, the Indian Supreme Court observed that arrest and detention of a person in a police lock-up can cause incalculable harm to his or her reputation and self-esteem.

The right to life and the prevention of any terrorist activity often come face to face when the right to life of a suspected terrorist is in question. In PLD 1998 SC 1445 the then Chief Justice Ajmal Mian observed various clauses of the Anti-Terrorism Act 1997 to be against fundamental rights as protected under the Constitution, and declared a number of provisions of the Act to be against the Constitution. The power given to law-enforcement officers under the Act to open fire on a suspect after a warning was declared in violation to the right to life, liberty and security of a person. The provision had allowed the officer to take action in his or her own assumption, but the formation of an opinion as to the probability and likelihood of commission of an offence varies from person to person, so it was declared that the exercise of the power to fire upon a suspect, without being fired upon by the accused/suspect, was not justified. Such an action was actually taken in a similar scenario when 3 suspects about to commit a terrorist activity were killed by a special air service unit of the British army. Suspects were affiliates of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and Intelligence believed that they were about to commit a terrorist activity. All three were killed and nothing relating to the terrorist activity was found in their possession as was believed in the Intelligence report. The European Court of Human Rights found a violation of the right to life. Court tested this case against the principles of necessity and proportionality and concluded that it was not absolutely necessary to use force and the extent of force used was also unnecessary. In another incident, the use of force by Rangers in Karachi lead to a brutal death of Sarfraz Ahmad leading to the Supreme Court observation that, “The manner, in which the death of Sarfraz Ahmed (deceased) has occurred, clearly indicates barbarism …… he had been overpowered…..”. Relying on the explanation of CJ Ajmal Mian as noted above, the Supreme Court reaffirmed that Rangers had no authority to fire upon a person.

There are many other judgments expanding the range of the meaning of “right to life”. It is a healthy sign that judiciary as the custodian of fundamental rights is expanding the meaning of right to life and it is hoped that it shall continue to do so for the people.


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of CourtingTheLaw.com or any organization with which he might be associated.

Yasir Cheema

Author: Yasir Cheema

The writer is an engineer by profession and writes on different subjects.