Thiruvananthapuram: The number of habeas corpus petitions filed before the Kerala High Court is increasing in the last couple of years as reports of missing persons are rife of late. While 459 pleas were filed in 2016, the figure rose to 496 in 2017. This year, 271 petitions have reached the high court till the end of June.
Habeas corpus is a writ petition filed only before the Supreme Court and High Court after a person goes missing or is suspected to have been wilfully detained by somebody. Subsequently, the court issues the writ, i.e., directions or orders with regard to the necessary action to be taken.
The petition was recently in the news in connection with the disappearance of college girl Jesna Maria James. A habeas corpus was also filed after an overseas woman tourist went missing near Kovalam in March.
What is habeas corpus?
The Latin word 'habeas corpus' roughly translates as ‘produce the body.’ The responsibility of protecting an individual rests with the state, in other words, the government. In a situation where a person is reported missing, it is again the state’s – that of the police – responsibility to give an explanation.
Pleas in this regard can be filed before the Supreme Court as well as the High Court. It is among the five writ pleas. While Section 32 of the Constitution enjoins the Supreme Court to issue writs, its Section 226 empowers the high courts to issue writs such as the habeas corpus.
The plea can be submitted by a relative or friend of the missing person or anyone else. However, the court has to be convinced of the motive of the person moving the plea. For instance, the relatives of the foreign tourist who was found dead at Kovalam had moved the plea after there was a delay in tracing her.
The police have the responsibility to conduct a search for the missing person if the court issues a directive in that regard. The Supreme Court had ruled in the Lalithakumari vs Government of Uttar Pradesh case (2014) that an FIR should be registered immediately and investigation started. The defendant in the case will be the police and any lapse in the investigation would invite action against the officials. If the police fail to trace the missing person, the reason should be submitted before the court.