Criminal Law Reforms Committee and its Relevance in Today's Societal Setting
Written by Manan Daga
Research Associate at Law & Order (month of Oct-Nov 2020)
Third Year, BA. LLB. West Bengal National University of Juridical Sciences, Kolkata (WBNUJS)
Disclaimer: Please note that the views expressed below represent the opinions of the article's author. The following does not necessarily represent the views of Law & Order.
In June 2020, the Ministry of Home Affairs had constituted the Committee for Reforms in Criminal Law consisting of five members. The committee is headed by Prof. (Dr.) Ranbir Singh and consists of Prof. (Dr.) G.S. Bajpai, Prof. (Dr.) Balraj Chauhan, Mr Mahesh Jethmalani and Mr G.P. Thareja. The objective of this committee is to undertake reforms for the safety and security of each individual; along with upholding justice, dignity and inherent worth of an individual. This committee is pertinent today for multiple reasons. There have been a lot of changes in the criminal law system of the country which need to be incorporated in appropriate statutes. The article highlights the details of this committee along with its criticisms like lack of diversity in representation. This article also describes the possible reforms which can be incorporated in the criminal statutes. Lastly, the article concludes by analysing the path these reforms will build for the future of our legal system.
Committee for reforms in Criminal Law
The committee is aimed at criminal law reforms by focusing on both substantive and procedural aspects. Historically, it is one of the few committees to have undertaken reforms on such a wide scale.
Under substantive reforms, the focus will be on the Indian Penal Code, 1860 (‘IPC’) wherein the definitions and the requirements or conditions of the offences may be reviewed, along with their punishment and fine. Under the procedural reforms, the focus will be on the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973 (‘CrPC’) and the Indian Evidence Act, 1872 (‘IEA’).
Impetus will be given on strengthening the trial, investigation and subsidiary process. In all these statutes, the redundant provisions should be altered or removed for the sake of clarity and precision. The committee may also review the provisions under the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act, 1985 (‘NDPS’).
This committee was constituted because most of these statutes were drafted or adopted from the ones which were drafted during the colonial times. Most committees before this committee like the Justice Verma Committee have had a limited scope. However, this committee is undertaking reforms under the substantive, procedural and evidence laws. During those times, the human rights conventions like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948 or the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, 1966 or the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, 1966 did not exist.
The committee is functioning by circulating questionnaires about substantive, procedural and evidence laws. This method of functioning of the committee is trying to ensure inclusivity of as many people as possible. Questionnaires reduce the dilemma since it provides pinpointed questions. Hence, the scope of the committee will not be diluted because of the inclusive functioning of this committee. Thus, significant reforms in criminal law are needed to inculcate the values and norms under these conventions.
Although the committee is a positive step towards reforming the criminal law system, however, it faces certain criticisms. The major criticism which this committee faced was regarding its diversity in representation.
There are no women, tribal people, transgender people, LGBTQ people, and Dalits in the committee. It has led to a lack of adequate representation for various groups whose concerns might be affected through these reforms. Secondly, this committee is criticised because of the timing of this reform. During the pandemic of COVID-19, there are more significant issues and interests at play, which may lead to limited public engagement and discussion. Thirdly, the committee is functioning in English, which further limits the engagement of the people who are not comfortable with this language.
In contrast, this committee consists majorly of academicians which has not happened quite often in the past. Along with this, there are multiple societal changes which are happening, and this reform committee being constituted around these changes is beneficial. Some of these societal changes include the rise of video conferencing facilities in courts, or the increase in the use of the electronic evidence. Furthermore, the guiding principles and the objectives of this committee are broad and encompasses a major area of criminal law. Therefore, this committee may have its limitations, but it is relevant in today’s societal setting because an optimistic approach may lead to material reforms, and these limitations can be overcome by adding some extra sessions where these limitations can be rectified.
The Relevance of this committee in the current societal setting
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought a significant change in the Indian legal system, which is the use of video conferencing (VC) facilities. Video conferencing has its pros and cons. On one hand, a witness or a lawyer from a different city can argue the case and need not travel there. On the other hand, the demeanour and the non-verbal cues of the witness cannot be examined due to video conferencing. Along with this, disabled people may face challenges in getting accustomed or even use the video conferencing facility. For instance, a blind person may not be able to get familiarised with the atmosphere of the court, or a dumb person may not be able to communicate properly, or a deaf person may not be able to discern or understand what is being said correctly, or their confidence may be lost.
Moreover, Section 159 of the IEA talks about refreshing memory of the person testifying, but in video conferencing, a person may refer to these documents without even letting the court know. Therefore, this committee needs to consider including the necessary procedure and evidence process in the required statutes to be able to face these challenges.
Secondly, the committee should try to settle the debate on electronic evidence. Electronic evidence has a lot of potential use in the future, and the law needs to be clear on the same. Section 65B of the IEA requires a certification as a condition of fulfilling the provision. However, there have been multiple cases on this where the law has gone back and forth. It started from the case of Navjot Sandhu, where the court held that the certificate was not necessary. The law changed in Anvar v. Basheer, where the court held that the requirement of the certificate was necessary. The law changed back and forth until in 2020, in the case of Arjun Panditrao, the court held that the certificate was mandatory. However, there is still no clarity because the law has been changed so many times. Thus, this debate needs to be settled by this committee.
Thirdly, the committee needs to focus on strengthening the laws on crimes against women. The laws are not acting as sufficient deterrent for the people because the number of crimes against women reported in India has not gone down. Along with this, there is a rise in encounter-killings. Hence, the committee should strengthen the laws on the same and ensure that it does not become a backdoor method of meeting the ends of justice. Further, stringent laws on mob-lynching are also required for deterring people from taking part in the same. These are relevant in the current societal setting.
Fourthly, the laws on confession should be revisited by the committee. Section 27 of the IEA has the potential of being misused by the police. The police have the power to plant evidence at crime scenes. Additionally, there is no candid way to ensure that the accused was not tortured mentally or physically. Mental torture can include threatening the accused with dire consequences for the things that matter to the accused. For instance, in the case of Mousam Singha Roy, the panch witness waited outside while the police went inside and brought the article discovered. The potential of the planting of the article or other evidence by the police rises in such cases. Along with this, the presence of a panch witness is not necessary when the accused gives the disclosure statement. Hence, this committee can revisit this provision along with other provisions of confession. The committee may take a look at the guidelines stated under Miranda v. Arizona, which is a case in the United States of America. It has laid down the guiding principles on confession in the USA like the presence of a lawyer during confession, informing the accused of his/her right to remain silent, etc. The presence of a lawyer can ensure the potential misuse or possibility of torture too.
Fifthly, the committee can revisit the laws on terrorism and the laws on consumption and possession of drugs and other narcotic substances. The drug cases under the NDPS Act are increasing and are coming into the limelight. Hence, it is pertinent to review these laws to ensure if the punishment is acting as a sufficient measure and posing as a deterrent or if the procedure needs any reforms. Lastly, the committee should amend or repeal the redundant provisions like Section 37 and 166 of the IEA. These redundant provisions need to be repealed or amended because their essence has been done away with for decades, and their presence highlights the complacency of the legal system. Therefore, these reforms are relevant.
There might be some issues and criticisms with this committee, but the role and relevance of this committee is crucial in the current societal setting. The pros of this committee outweigh the cons because the cons can be rectified by an overt act or a future course of action. It is likely that the issues of diverse representation or the language of the committee may be concerning. Nevertheless, the breakthrough and the development this committee can bring in the criminal justice system is remarkable. Further, the issues and criticisms are the ones which can be overcome easily. The findings of this committee can be reviewed by a newly formed committee which has diversity in representation. The issue of COVID-19 is uncertain, but slowly, things are going back to normal. Hence, when this review committee is made, then the times will be better because humankind is learning to fight and cope with COVID-19.
Lastly, the issue of language can be solved by ensuring a diversity in language in the review committee.
Hence, the issues and criticisms of this committee can be rectified. However, the breakthrough and development this committee can make in the criminal law system cannot be risked for some challenges which can be solved. This committee is taking on reforms widely and providing an opportunity to amend any aspect of criminal law. For the greater good and development of the criminal law system, this committee should be seen optimistically instead of negatively. Ergo, this committee is the need of the hour.
The committee for criminal law reforms has the opportunity to settle the numerous debates and discrepancies in the criminal law.
These reforms will shape a path towards the future of criminal law. Reforms in video conferencing and electronic evidence are essential since the future holds a lot of potential in the technological sector. Hence, it is necessary for the criminal law system to grow along with the technological sector.
Moreover, the committee has an opportunity to revisit other provisions of criminal law which need to be strengthened like crimes against women, and the provisions which have the potential of being misused like laws on confession.
This committee has the golden opportunity to address these issues, and since the committee has academicians and lawyers, they might be aware of multiple issues which need review. Thus, this committee’s pros outweigh its cons. It is because the composition of the committee or the language of the committee cannot become an obstacle on the path of the necessary reforms this committee can do. Hence, this committee is relevant in today’s societal setting because it will help in paving a better path for the future.
 Centre for Criminology and Victimology NLUD, Committee for Reforms in Criminal Law, MINISTRY OF HOME AFFAIRS (Jun. 26, 2020), https://nludelhi.ac.in/UploadedImages/8956ade5-a725-4a36-bcee-086353ea5a30.pdf
 Id.  Id.  Sanchita Kadam, A closer look at the new Criminal Law Reforms Committee, CITIZENS FOR JUSTICE AND PEACE (Aug. 26, 2020), https://cjp.org.in/a-closer-look-at-the-new-criminal-reforms-committee/  Id.  Id.  T.K. Rajalakshmi, Ranbir Singh: Reforms were long overdue, FRONTLINE (Sept. 25, 2020), https://frontline.thehindu.com/the-nation/reforms-were-long-overdue/article32531365.ece  Justice J.S. Verma Committee, Report of the Committee on Amendments to Criminal Law, Jan. 23, 2013.  Supra 7.  FII Team, Why Must The Criminal Law Reform Committee Be Disbanded?, FEMINISM IN INDIA (Oct. 8, 2020), https://feminisminindia.com/2020/10/08/why-must-the-criminal-law-reform-committee-be-disbanded/#:~:text=The%20Committee%20was%20commissioned%20by,which%20prioritises%20the%20constitutional%20values  Id.  Id.  Id.  Veera Mahuli, Why Is the Home Ministry's Committee on Criminal Law Reform Functioning in Secrecy?, THE WIRE (Oct. 9, 2020), https://thewire.in/law/criminal-law-reform-committee-transparency.  Supra 7.  Manan Daga & Siddharth Pankaj Tiwari, Virtual Courts: A Reality, NUALS LAW JOURNAL BLOG (Sept. 22, 2020), https://nualslawjournal.com/2020/09/22/virtual-courts-a-reality/  Id.  State (NCT of Delhi) v. Navjot Sandhu, (2005) 11 SCC 600.  Anvar P.V. v. P.K. Basheer, (2014) 10 SCC 473.  Arjun Panditrao Khotkar v. Kailash Kushanrao Gorantyal & Ors, (2020) 3 SCC 216.  PTI, Average 87 Rape Cases Daily, Over 7% Rise in Crimes Against Women in 2019: NCRB Data, THE WIRE (Sept. 30, 2020), https://thewire.in/women/average-87-rape-cases-daily-over-7-rise-in-crimes-against-women-in-2019-ncrb-data  FP Staff, Vikas Dubey's death marks 119th encounter killing since March 2017; a look back at UP Police's 'encounter express’, FIRSTPOST (Jul. 12, 2020), https://www.firstpost.com/india/vikas-dubeys-death-marks-119th-encounter-killing-since-march-2017-a-look-back-at-up-polices-encounter-express-8586771.html  Mousam Singha Roy v. State of West Bengal, (2003) 12 SCC 377.  Id.  State of Himachal Pradesh v. Jeet Singh, (1999) 4 SCC 370.  Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (1966) (USA case).  Id.
Arjun Panditrao Khotkar v. Kailash Kushanrao Gorantyal & Ors, (2020) 3 SCC 216
Anvar P.V. v. P.K. Basheer, (2014) 10 SCC 473
Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (1966) (USA case)
Mousam Singha Roy v. State of West Bengal, (2003) 12 SCC 377
State (NCT of Delhi) v. Navjot Sandhu, (2005) 11 SCC 600
State of Himachal Pradesh v. Jeet Singh, (1999) 4 SCC 370
1. Justice J.S. Verma Committee, Report of the Committee on Amendments to Criminal Law, Jan. 23, 2013
Centre for Criminology and Victimology NLUD, Committee for Reforms in Criminal Law, MINISTRY OF HOME AFFAIRS (Jun. 26, 2020), https://nludelhi.ac.in/UploadedImages/8956ade5-a725-4a36-bcee-086353ea5a30.pdf
FII Team, Why Must The Criminal Law Reform Committee Be Disbanded?, FEMINISM IN INDIA (Oct. 8, 2020), https://feminisminindia.com/2020/10/08/why-must-the-criminal-law-reform-committee-be-disbanded/#:~:text=The%20Committee%20was%20commissioned%20by,which%20prioritises%20the%20constitutional%20values
FP Staff, Vikas Dubey's death marks 119th encounter killing since March 2017; a look back at UP Police's 'encounter express’, FIRSTPOST (Jul. 12, 2020), https://www.firstpost.com/india/vikas-dubeys-death-marks-119th-encounter-killing-since-march-2017-a-look-back-at-up-polices-encounter-express-8586771.html
PTI, Average 87 Rape Cases Daily, Over 7% Rise in Crimes Against Women in 2019: NCRB Data, THE WIRE (Sept. 30, 2020), https://thewire.in/women/average-87-rape-cases-daily-over-7-rise-in-crimes-against-women-in-2019-ncrb-data
Sanchita Kadam, A closer look at the new Criminal Law Reforms Committee, CITIZENS FOR JUSTICE AND PEACE (Aug. 26, 2020), https://cjp.org.in/a-closer-look-at-the-new-criminal-reforms-committee/
T.K. Rajalakshmi, Ranbir Singh: Reforms were long overdue, FRONTLINE (Sept. 25, 2020), https://frontline.thehindu.com/the-nation/reforms-were-long-overdue/article32531365.ece
Veera Mahuli, Why Is the Home Ministry's Committee on Criminal Law Reform Functioning in Secrecy?, THE WIRE (Oct. 9, 2020), https://thewire.in/law/criminal-law-reform-committee-transparency