In May, the Ministry of Home Affairs constituted the National Level Committee for Reforms in Criminal Laws, which targets to review the field of criminal law in India and to recommend far-reaching changes affecting the substantial, evidentiary and procedural laws.
However, as soon as the committee issued a public notice for expert consultation in the last week of June, concerns started pouring in from legal experts all over the country questioning the committee’s constitution, functioning, and timelines of consultation.
Reforms in Criminal Laws
Any reform in the field of criminal law is likely to have serious repercussions for every person in India who is subjected to criminal law, whether crime victim, or an accused, or any person who wishes to live in just society.
The laws of crime in practice tend to affect different persons differently. This difference arises owing to the societal structure. Religious minorities, especially Dalit and Adivasi communities in India have a history of facing police violence, long periods of undertrial detention, harsh punishments and poor legal representation.
Women, transgender and other sexual minorities who regularly face gender-based violence and are often let down by the criminal justice system.
These reforms are going to affect each and every citizen but the marginalised communities are likely to be the most affected.
Given this situation, it is imperative for all people to be aware about what is being done.
Concerns of legal experts
First issue of concern, popularly raised, is about the time at which this committee has invited consultations.
Opening consultations at the time of global pandemic, in which India is one of the worst affected countries, is not a welcome measure as it is not feasible to expect engaged participation from all stakeholders.
Also, it is neither realistic nor desirable to consider the overhauling of the entire criminal justice system of a country within a time frame of three months. Experts have called this to be practically impossible.
Second concern is about the opacity in operation and transparency of the committee. When a committee is established, the ‘terms of reference’ are laid down in which it is stated what a committee is/is not entitled to do. This committee has not made its terms of reference public since the date of its establishment. Also, it is not publishing the responses received during the process of consultation. This is required to prevent misquoting in the final report.
Third concern is about the non-representative composition of the committee. Adequate and diverse representation is required for the committee to function democratically.
The committee has only five members and none of them is a full-time member. There are no members to show specific representation from racial, sexual, gender religious or caste minorities, or from the working class or disabled communities. It also has no representation from civil society groups and from geographical regions outside north India.
Fourth issue pertains to the procedure adopted for consultations. The committee website has released questionnaires containing around 300 questions. It is an online media which operates only in English language.
This is considered to be an exclusionary practice because in India there is low internet penetration and not everyone understands English.
Fifth concern is about the questions asked in the questionnaires. The committee has not provided any reason or context as to why certain areas of criminal law, as identified in the questionnaires, need reform and how it was decided that those specific areas of law need reform.
Even concerns are being raised over the issue that the questionnaires contain incomprehensible and poorly framed questions.
Keeping in view the above factors of concern, legal experts from all over the country are demanding the committee to cease functioning.
They are suggesting that if reforms are to be brought, then there should be adequate consultation, coherent methods, inclusive and transparent procedures, and adequate representation, and this process should be initiated after the effects of this pandemic end.
A large group of legal experts along with members of civil society have come up with a website to create awareness about the criminal law reforms.
The website can be accessed here http://disbandthecommittee.in/
For people who want to access the resources of information in their vernacular language can view it here http://disbandthecommittee.in/concerns.html
In wake of the serious impact this committee might have on the entire criminal law system of the country, this website demands that the Ministry of Home Affairs should disband this committee.
In support of this demand it seeks active participation of concerned citizens. It has an email tool which allows you to register your concerns with the MHA, committee members, and your MP with a single click. You can access it here http://disbandthecommittee.in/mail.html