Former High Court and Supreme Court Judges, Senior Advocates, Academics and Former Bureaucrats, working with the criminal justice system across the country, have urged the Central Committee for Reforms in Criminal Law not to proceed with the process of recommending criminal law reforms in India, unless it has adequate representation from such social groups and communities that have hitherto been failed by the justice delivery system.
This is the second letter addressed to the Committee by the group, raising concerns over its composition and transparency in functioning.
"Given this committee's wide remit and given that the final product of this committee's efforts is set to reconfigure fundamentally the relationship between citizens, and between citizens and the State, it is of utmost importance that the composition of the committee reflects at least some of India's rich diversity," they wrote.
Earlier, the group had communicated their concerns to the Committee, highlighting the lack of diversity, both in terms of the social identity of its members, as well as their professional background and experience.
'Lacks Diversity': Former SC/HC Judges, Lawyers Express Concern On Composition And Working Of Central Committee For Reforms In Criminal Law
Through this letter, the addresses have called upon the Committee to communicate to the MHA that the process of suggesting "root and branch reform of Indian Criminal Law" cannot happen unless the committee is reconstituted to include representation from those communities that have endured the most of the failing criminal justice system, wider academic representation, and representation from trial court lawyers.
The addresses seek representation of women, dalits, muslims, adviasis, transgender community, trade unions, legal historians, constitutional law scholars, academic with expertise in Criminal Law and Criminal Jurisprudence and advocates practising in the trial court, at what they call "the high table," to ensure rigorous procedure and robust outcome.
The Committee had earlier, by way of a Public Notice dated July 8, 2020, clarified that its constitution and composition lies with the Union Ministry of Home Affairs.
The addresses have therefore urged the Committee to write to the MHA asking for the committee to be reconstituted.
Inadequate time for Consultation
The addresses have agitated the short span of time given to suggest reforms to the three most important laws under the Constitution— the Indian Penal Code, the Code of Criminal Procedure and the Indian Evidence Act.
The Public Notice indicates that the Committee has to complete the assignment within the duration of six months.
Resisting the same, the addresses have pointed out various examples of the previous Committees that took years of cerebration and consultation, to come out with the criminal law and its trial procedure.
Citing the latest example of the Justice Verma Committee which took time to consult with all the stakeholders even when it was looking "only" at changes to the provisions on rape and sexual offences, the addressed said,
"An overhaul of criminal law as we have known it after 900 years of common law and almost hundred and fifty years of established jurisprudence, is too serious a matter to be wrapped up in all of six months with the method of time bound questionnaires, the modus outlined in the public notice, and a five member Committee."
Suspension of functioning during Covid crisis
The addresses have urged the Committee to suspend its functioning while India remains in the grip of the COVID 19 pandemic. "Humanity requires that the Committee not commit to an exercise of this scale when 600 Indians are dying every day and when large swathes of the country are in lockdown or containment," they wrote.
Other demands raised by the addresses include:
Lastly, the addressed have reiterated their concern over the questionnaire released by the Committee for public consultation on various aspects of Indian penal law.
They have suggested that since the Indian Penal Code, the Code of Criminal Procedure and the Indian Evidence Act are all "intrinsically connected" in their operation,
"all questionnaires about all three codes must be released together and participants must be given at least three months to respond. Any comments about amending, deleting or reconfiguring offences or creating new offences cannot but happen along with engaging with procedural and evidentiary mechanics and due process requirements."
They have thus asked the Committee to abandon the questionnaire and also the questionnaire method of public engagement. In their place, they have recommended to put out "Think Papers" on specific areas of concern that have their bases in empirical study and other research.
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