Jun 16, 2023

What are Look Out Circulars and How Can the Government Use Them

Recently, the Calcutta High Court observed that curbing a citizen’s right to travel without prior information is ‘draconian and uncivilised’ and can only be imposed in exceptional circumstances. Over the last couple of years, eminent personalities have frequently been stopped at airports on account of pending ‘Look Out Circulars’. Journalists Aakar Patel, Rana Ayyub and recently, Sanna Irshad Mattoo are recent examples of those who have been prevented from travelling outside the country for this reason. 

The Supreme Court of India in Maneka Gandhi vs. Union of India (1978) held that “under Article 21, a citizen cannot be deprived of their right to travel abroad except according to any procedure established by the law. Moreover, the right to freedom of movement is an internationally recognised right that Article 12(2) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (“ICCPR”) confers on every citizen of the world. However, ICCPR also empowers governments to restrict one’s movement if such restrictions are deemed necessary under the due process of law. In that context, the ‘Look Out Circulars’ (“LOC”) can come across as arbitrarily infringing upon our right to movement. In this weekly, let’s learn more about LOCs and what are reasonable restrictions on our right to freedom of movement. 

What is an LOC?

LOCs are official orders that a designated officer can  issue, either preventing a person from travelling beyond or entering into the territory of India. Although LOCs are not defined in the Indian laws, they have been in use since 1979 after the Ministry of Home Affairs codified a set of related guidelines in a letter numbered ‘25022/13/78-F.I’ (‘guidelines’). 

Who can issue an LOC?

Only the Deputy Director, Bureau of Immigration of the Ministry of Home Affairs (“MHA”) can issue LOC orders upon receiving requests from competent investigating authorities like the police or CBI. Only specific categories of officers listed in the guidelines can raise the LOC requests, such as the Deputy Secretary to the Union Government or a Joint Secretary to a state government, Superintendent of Police (“S.P”), a district magistrate, director level officers of law enforcement and investigating agencies. Statutory Bodies like Commissions must route their requests for LOCs through an officer not below the rank of an S.P. In 2018, the MHA issued a new set of guidelines which enabled the heads of public sector banks to directly approach the MHA with LOC requests against wilful defaulters. Criminal courts in India can also raise LOC requests with the MHA. 

Under what circumstances can an LOC be ordered?

The guidelines allow the authorities mentioned above to issue LOC orders against an accused in any cognizable offence under the Indian Penal Code. However, this applies only when there is a real threat of the accused deliberately evading legal procedures or persistently disobeying summons issued by enforcement agencies or a court. LOCs are commonly issued in cases regarding financial frauds, debt recoveries, and offences related to national security. 

An LOC does not necessarily mean arrest and the validity of LOCs is usually for a year . 

What can you do if an LOC has been issued against you?

  • You can approach the originating authority of the LOC and submit a letter asking them to withdraw the order. 
  • If the LOC is issued in an ongoing litigation, you can also approach the relevant Court and file an application for cancellation after giving relevant grounds. 
  • In India, all executive orders are open to judicial review. SinceLOCs are executive orders, you can file a writ petition before any High Court asking for the  LOC to be withdrawn. 

Important observations made by the Indian Courts on LOCs:

  • In the current judgement of Manoj Kumar Jain vs. Union of India (2023), the Calcutta High Court observed that the reasoning for issuing an LOC cannot be uniformly applied across the board without exceptions. In cases of debt recovery related LOCs, the defaulters’ background and past records of payments must be assessed before imposing any restriction of their fundamental right to freedom of movement. 
  • In 2022, the Delhi High Court in Vikas Chaudhary vs. Union of India, had cautioned against restricting the fundamental right to travel merely on the ground of suspicions. LOCs must only be issued in exceptional circumstances and not “as a matter of routine”. 
  • In Rana Ayyub vs. Union of India (2022), the Delhi High Court held that a balance must be maintained between the “right of the investigation agency to investigate the matter as well as the fundamental right of the petitioner of movement and free speech” while issuing LOC orders.