Legal reforms are a priority

Joginder Singh ji
Former Director – CBI

Minor amendments to existing laws can radically transform our justice delivery system. The Government must act without delay

The Government spends crores of rupees in setting up committees and commissions to discover what is wrong with its own functioning and how it can become more people-friendly. However, there are a few things that it can do and there are some things all of us can and should do as citizens. Obeying the law, for example, is a duty and not a favour done. The truth remains that the Government knows very well what is wrong. It sets up its commissions and committees only as a cover for inaction and to avoid accountability.

The public is no longer shocked by traffic accidents — whether it involves the death of one or that of a dozen people and whether it is caused by recklessly driven Blueline buses or by expensive cars with spoilt children of the rich and influential at the wheel. A teenager driving a fast car ran over a young engineering student and his five-year-old cousin riding a motorcycle in Chandigarh.

An eyewitness said that the teenager was drunk at the time of the accident but after she surrendered the next day, she was not charged with drunken driving. After her surrender, she was promptly given bail. Incidentally, she is a student in the US where punishment for such an offence is much more serious and entails permanent dispossession of driving licence.

But cancelling a driving licence in our country is a tortuous process. It is rarely done and in case it is there are plenty of ways to get hold of a new one — either genuine or fake. This is because the Government does not have a national register of driving licences as in the case of all-India arms licences or a national register of citizens.

The maximum punishment for this crime under the law is two years imprisonment if found guilty. Data collated for 2007 show that India registered 4,18,657 road accidents with 1,14,590 fatalities which comes to 314 casualties per day, 13 deaths per hour and a death every five minutes. We are still following the laws given to us by the British in 1863. According to these, there is a fine distinction between an act of culpable homicide not amounting to murder and a murder committed with a motive or malice. But a killing is still a killing whether it is caused by a truck or a car or any other vehicle.

In the national capital in 2007, there were 851 fatal incidents in which a total of 2,141 people died and 7,695 were injured. There were only 211 murder cases in the city in the same period. Statistics showing deaths on the road numbering over one lakh still did not awaken the somnolent Government to the gravity of the issue.

Those accused in the Satyam scam (put variously at `24,000 crore to `35,000 crore) were given bail on health ground. The Satyam case is nothing but a mockery of justice. The CBI has traced more than 400 fictitious companies floated by the main accused B Ramalinga Raju and his associates for the purpose of diverting the alleged proceeds of the crime. Nearly 2,000 acres of land, acquired by Raju and his family with the proceeds of the fraud, has been identified by the CBI.

Incidentally, Raju had confessed to fraud worth `7,000 crore on January 7, 2009. The point here is that once the accused has confessed his crime, do we need to go on with the hearings producing witness after witness in court and prolonging the trial for years on end? A simple amendment to the law to the effect that after an accused has voluntarily confessed to a crime the court shall proceed to dispose of the case on the basis of his confession can solve the problem. The heavens will not fall and no right of the accused guaranteed under the Constitution will be adversely affected because to be admissible in a court of law, such a confession must be recorded before a judicial magistrate. Indeed, it will send the right message — that the accused has been punished on the basis of his own confession.

The same is the case involving the surviving terrorist in the 26/11 Mumbai attacks in which, even after two years, the accused is yet to get his just desserts. With such an approach, are we not giving ordinary citizens the impression that the law is keener to provide escape routes to criminals instead of punishing them as they deserve?

On August 17, the Supreme Court observed that “the criminal justice system is either crumbling or has crumbled” after taking note that the High Courts had stayed trials and later forgotten about the cases. According to the information furnished to the Supreme Court, 10,541 criminal trials were stayed by Allahabad High Court. Of these, nine per cent had been pending for more than 20 years and 21 per cent for over a decade. This means stay of trial in 30 per cent of heinous offences continued for more than 10 years.

The judiciary is proclaimed by the high and mighty as one of the pillars of good governance and democracy but successive Governments have starved it of the funds and wherewithal to improve the justice delivery system.

It is a fact that the Government had meted out stepmotherly treatment to the judiciary leading to a huge pendency of cases in subordinate courts. The Chief Justice of India observed on August 18, “The time has come for the judiciary to raise its own resources to meet expenses on account of judicial infrastructure, which is lacking in several States.” The court has decided to set up a special purpose vehicle under which money, as and when raised, would be earmarked for “judicial infrastructure”.

In 2004, the Prime Minister, while addressing a conference of Chief Ministers and Chief Justices, had said that Government litigation including appeals which mostly fail accounts for 70 per cent of the cases and it is these cases that get a hearing at the cost of citizens’ cases. He had also observed that such appeals should not have been filed in the first instance.

But as the Punjabi saying goes, ek juun vi nahi hilli, and no steps have been taken to rectify the situation. One does not need great intelligence to take corrective measures if one wishes to take them in the first place. If the Government sticks to the stance of masterly inactivity and waits to do anything until it is satisfied that the time is absolutely right, it will be unable to change the present state of affairs. Our Prime Minister is considered the best leader in the world and he should have a solution.