Death in custody suits must be filed within 3 years, rules court

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PUTRAJAYA: The Federal Court has held that relatives of victims who died in custody must file their suits against the government within 36 months of the incident.

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A three-member bench chaired by Chief Judge of Malaya Azhar Mohamed said this was because the Public Authorities Protection Act 1948 made it mandatory for civil action to be filed within three years from the date of death in such cases.

Azahar said this on Monday when refusing to reinstate a suit filed by family members of P Karunanithi, who died at the Tampin police lock-up seven years ago.

Sitting with Azahar were Mohd Zawawi Salleh and Abdul Rahman Sebli.

The lawyers for Karunanithi’s widow, R Kaliamah, and her children, Yugesh Varan and Kisho Kumar, took the position that the cause of action should begin from the day an inquest verdict is delivered.

However, the government said the suit should have been filed at the latest by June 1, 2016, as Karunanithi was found dead in the lock-up three years earlier.

Fifteen policemen and the government were named as defendants in the action that was filed on Jan 25, 2018.

On Jan 28, 2015, the Coroner’s Court ruled that Karunanithi sustained 49 external injuries due to assault with blunt objects.

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Coroner Jagjit Singh also concluded that it was accelerated by failure of police to prevent other detainees from abusing him, and to provide the necessary medical care.

The High Court dismissed the government’s bid to overturn the coroner’s verdict and the government later withdrew its appeal in the Court of Appeal in March last year.

The High Court struck out the suit in October 2018 and the Court of Appeal affirmed the decision last year on grounds the three-year limitation period had come to an end on June 1, 2016.

Lawyer T Manoharan had argued before the apex court that his clients’ suit was valid as the cause of action should begin from the date the inquest verdict was delivered.

“We will not know the actual cause of death and who was responsible until the coroner had conducted his investigation during the death inquiry,” said Manohoran, who was assisted by S Mathan Raj.

Senior Federal Counsel Azizan Md Arshad said the family could have filed suit as the Public Authorities Protection Act allowed for claims against negligence or omission but within 36 months from the incident date.

“In this case, the widow and the children could have named the policemen and officers in charge of the station and the government as the employer for vicariously liable,” said Azizan, who was assisted by Andi Razalijaya A Dadi.

Azizan said evidence from the inquest could be helpful for litigants to prove their allegation in the civil action. – FMT

“The appeal has no merit and is dismissed with costs of RM10,000,” he said during an online hearing conducted due to the imposition of the conditional movement control order since Oct 14.

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