Term of imprisonment in life imprisonment
For how long does life imprisonment last?

Chapter III of the Indian Penal Code, 1860, sets out the general provisions relating to punishments. Section 53 of the Act provides five types of punishment, one of which is imprisonment for life. The term “imprisonment for life,” prima facie, means a sentence of imprisonment running for the remaining period of a convict’s natural life.

The Supreme Court in Gopal Vinayak Godsey vs State of Maharashtra (AIR 1961) noted that life imprisonment should not have any term of confinement, like 14 years or 20 years. It is imprisonment for the rest of the natural life of the person convicted.

In 2012, a bench of Justices KS Radhakrishnan and Madan B Lokur in Sangeet & Another vs the State of Haryana noted that “A prisoner in prison for life should stay in detention until the end of his life, subject to any remission granted by the appropriate government.”

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Now, there is confusion because of the various provisions in the Indian Penal Code and the Code of Criminal Procedure. These provisions make most people confused. Usually, people get confused about the term or duration of imprisonment in life imprisonment. They wonder if the jail time is:

  • 20 years, or
  • Over 14 years, or
  • Less than 14 years, or
  • The rest of the life?

Let us deal with the confusion by keeping in mind that life imprisonment at the first instance means imprisonment for the rest of the life of the person convicted.

Life Imprisonment Provisions in IPC and CrPC

These are the various provisions dealing with life imprisonment under the Indian Penal Code and the Code of Criminal Procedure.

1. Section 57 IPC

Section 57 of the Indian Penal Code states that life imprisonment shall be equal to 20 years imprisonment for calculating fractions of the term of imprisonment.

For example, section 65 of IPC talks about the limit of imprisonment for non-payment of the fine. It says that the sentence in default of payment of the fine shall not exceed 1/4 of the maximum punishment of such offence.

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Let’s say that the court sentences a person to both life imprisonment and a fine, but he defaults on the fine. Then what will be 1/4 of the life sentence?

To resolve such an issue, section 57 applies. Thus, a quarter of life imprisonment will be 1/4 of 20 years = 5 years.

2. Section 433 CrPC and Section 55 IPC

Section 433 of the Criminal Procedure Code read with section 55 of the Indian Penal Code talks about the power to commute the sentence. Under clause (b), it says that the appropriate government may, without the offender’s consent, commute the punishment for imprisonment for life for a term not exceeding 14 years of imprisonment.

It means that if the appropriate government commutes life imprisonment, then it can only commute it up to 14 years, and not more than that.

In criminal law, commutation means a substitution of a lesser sentence for a more severe one. It is to be noted here that commutation differs from pardon. Pardon is the complete remission of penalty by persons authorized by law.

Must Read: Mercy Petition – Article 72 and 161 of the Constitution

3. Section 433A CrPC

Section 433A of the Criminal Procedure Code restricts the power of remission or commutation. Under criminal law, remission means reducing the sentence period without changing its nature.

It talks about two situations:

(a) Whenever someone is sentenced to life imprisonment for a crime that also carries the death penalty.
For example, criminal conspiracy (section 120B), abetment of mutiny (section 132), murder (section 302), dacoity with murder (section 396) of IPC, etc.

(b) When a person is convicted with the death penalty but later under section 433 CrPC, the government commuted it to imprisonment for life.

Under these two situations only, the appropriate government may, without the consent of the convicted person, commute or remiss the imprisonment for life to any term of imprisonment not less than 14 years.

It means that the convicted person must be imprisoned for a minimum of 14 years.

Case Laws Related to the Term of Imprisonment

Will the Person Be Released After 20 Years in Jail?

Kishori Lal vs Emperor (1944)

In this case, the accused argued that because of section 57 IPC, life imprisonment is equivalent to 20 years. After it, the convicted person will get remission automatically.

The Privy Council held that life imprisonment cannot be treated as 20 years imprisonment as given under section 57 IPC. Also, the convicted person doesn’t need to be released after the expiration of 20 years unless the appropriate government under section 433 or 433A of CrPC commutes it.

Is Life Imprisonment Simple Imprisonment or Rigorous Imprisonment?

Md. Munna vs Union of India (2015)

In this case, the convicted person remained in jail for over 21 years. He then filed a writ of habeas corpus and contended that life imprisonment is only 20 years, which he already served, and now his imprisonment is illegal. He also contended that life imprisonment is always treated as simple imprisonment.

The Supreme Court affirmed the Gopal Vinayak Godse vs the State of Maharashtra (1961) decision and said that life imprisonment, prima facie, means imprisonment for the rest of the life of the person convicted. The court further clarified that life imprisonment is always rigorous imprisonment. This decision affirmed the judgement of Naib Singh vs the State of Punjab (1983).

Recent Case on Life Imprisonment

Union of India vs Sriharan (2016)

In Union of India vs Sriharan, the Supreme Court also asked the parliament to make arrangements within the IPC to explain the meaning of life imprisonment to the common public.


I hope everything is clear now.

As evident from various court judgements, life imprisonment, if not remitted or commuted by the appropriate government, will be equivalent to imprisonment for the rest of the natural life of the person convicted and not only 20 years or 14 years.

Read Next:
1. 8 Kinds and Theories of Punishment
2. Death Punishment for Every Rape Has a Problem!
3. 6 Kinds of Punishment Under the Indian Penal Code

Ritesh Kumar
WritingLaw » Law Notes » Is Life Imprisonment for Rest of the Life or 20 Years or 14 Years? Law Study Material
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