A sentence of imprisonment for life would ensure till the lifetime of the accused. If remissions have been given they cannot be regarded as a substitute for such sentence. The High Court was in error in thinking that a person sentenced to imprisonment for life was entitled as of right to be released on completing the term of 20 years including the remission.
It has been held in Gopal Vinayak Godse v. State of Maharashtra, that the sentence of life imprisonment is a sentence for life and nothing else and therefore a prisoner sentenced to life imprisonment is bound to serve the remainder of his life in prison.
But it was not denied that such a sentence could be commuted or remitted by the appropriate authority. On this logic it was held by a three Judges Bench of the Supreme Court that the Penal Code and the Procedure Code make a clear distinction between imprisonment for life and imprisonment for a term.
This has been turned down by a large Bench of the Supreme Court in Bhagirath v. Delhi Admnand it has been held that for purposes of setting off, commutation of and remission of sentences under the Code of Criminal Procedure, the relevant provisions should be so construed as to mean that a person who is sentenced to life imprisonment is sentenced to an imprisonment for a term and the term to which he has been sentenced is the term of his life.
The controversy involved in the case was whether the person sentenced to life imprisonment could claim the benefit of Section 428, Cr. P.C. which provides for the period of detention undergone by the accused to be set-off against the sentence of imprisonment.
The section says that where an accused person has been sentenced to an imprisonment for a term. The Supreme Court said that the fact that the term of life is of an uncertain duration does not justify the conclusion that sentence for imprisonment is not for a term.
‘The assumption that the word “term” implies a concept of ascertainability or conveys a sense of certainty (viz., as conveying a period of time like six months, two years, five years, and so on) is contrary to the letter of the law’.
So that to deny the benefit of Sec. 428 to the accused persons sentenced to life imprisonment is to withdraw the application of benevolent provision from a large majority of cases in which such benefit would be needed and justified.
Coming back to the meaning of imprisonment for life, therefore, it can be safely said that it means that a convict is bound to serve the remainder of his life in prison unless the sentence imposed upon him is commuted or remitted by the appropriate authority.
It is true that Section 57 of the Cr. P.C. provides that imprisonment for life has to be reckoned as equivalent to imprisonment for 20 years. But this provision is for the purpose of calculating fractions of terms of punishment and it cannot be pressed for a wider purpose.
Section 511 provides that whoever attempts to commit the offence punishable with imprisonment for life shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to one-half of the imprisonment of life.
A latest decision of the Supreme court on the life imprisonment is that if it is proved without any doubt, the murder of married woman is committed by husband or with his consent by any other person related to husband where the wife has not committed suicide or burned herself, the husband may be convicted with life imprisonment.
Any reference to ‘transportation for life’ in any other law for the time being in force would be construed as a reference to ‘imprisonment for life’.