Preventive detention laws in India are a colonial legacy and can give arbitrary powers to the government, the Supreme Court said on Monday.

A division bench comprising Justices Krishna Murari and V Ramasubramanian was hearing the case filed by a man named Pramod Singla, who was arrested in November 2021 on charges of smuggling gold. He granted bail on December 13, 2021

However, the Directorate of Revenue Intelligence arrested Singla again on February 4, 2022, after the detaining authority under the Conservation of Foreign Exchange and Prevention of Smuggling Activities Act passed an order to place him under preventive detention.

On November 3, the Delhi High Court dismissed Singla’s petition against the detention order. However, he was later released as the period of his detention ended.

The Supreme Court on Monday noted that while Singla had already been released, it was passing the judgement to clarify the point of law. It concluded that the order to place him under preventive detention was liable to be set aside.

The bench said that the court must analyse cases related to preventive detention laws with “extreme caution and excruciating detail”, so as to ensure that there are checks and balances on the government’s power.

“Every procedural rigidity, must be followed in entirety by the government in cases of preventive detention, and every lapse in procedure must give rise to a benefit to the case of the detenue,” the Supreme Court said. The court added that laws that confer arbitrary powers to the state must be used only in the rarest of rare cases.

The bench said that in cases involving preventive detention, the Constitution gives courts the duty to ensure that individual and civil liberties are protected.

“This act of protecting civil liberties, is not just the saving of rights of individuals in person and the society at large, but is also an act of preserving our Constitutional ethos, which is a product of a series of struggles against the arbitrary power of the British state,” it asserted.

The Supreme Court said that Singla was told about the grounds of his detention through illegible documents in a foreign language. It also noted that the Delhi High Court had quashed the detention order of his co-accused, Neeraj Varshney, as he had also been given similar illegible documents.