Civil Service Essay — Malimath Committee suggestions on trial of criminal cases
India’s criminal justice system — sick and crippled
Why and how hardened criminals, especially from the political class, escape the long hand of justice in so overwhelming number of cases? Such impunity manipulated through money power, coercion, and political interference erodes the public’s trust on our criminal justice system, and encourages young men and women to take to crime as a career. It is a fact that the public perception of police is one of a corrupt, ill-trained, and poorly staffed force that is so pliable to politicians’ wishes. The lower judiciary’s image has also been tarnished as confirmed criminals manage to delay the court proceedings, browbeat the witnesses, and finally get acquitted. In some cases, corrupt judges become complicit in the distortion of justice. This muck has unfortunately crept higher in recent years threatening the image of the higher courts. The system, therefore, needs major overhaul, so that it regains the trust of the people. A decrepit legal system breeds anarchical tendencies and endangers democracy. But, there is a danger here. In the zeal to convict criminals, the innocent must not be punished. In trying to hasten trial process and ensure higher conviction rate, basic safeguards available to the defendants and witnesses must not be undercut. Fast-tracking trials is a good idea, but forced confessions, prolonged holding of an accused in police custody are practices abhorrent to the spirit of our Constitution.
The Madhava Menon Committee’s ‘Draft National Policy on Criminal Justice’ (2007) has highlighted how influential culprits use money and muscle power to enfeeble the justice delivery system, and manage to walk free.
In 2003, Justice Malinath Committee had given a long list of 158 recommendations to reform the criminal justice delivery system in the country. Some of these were in fact acted upon by the government. Video recording of witness, bolstering legal position on sexual offences against women etc. were among the Committee’s recommendations that have been implemented. This initiative is welcome.
It appears, the present NDA government has decided to revisit the Justice Malinath committee suggestions to further strengthen the practice in courts dealing with criminal cases. Such intent on the part of the government is welcome, but abundant caution is required in proceeding in the matter. One of the Malimath Committee’s recommendation was that the accused or the witness’s statement before a senior police officer should have full jurisprudential value, and must not be allowed to be retracted. This is a deeply flawed idea. Senior police officers overstep their limits as often as their subordinates. They seldom are impartial, and mindful of the human rights of the poor accused or witnesses standing before them. They use heavy-handed techniques as brazenly as the lower functionaries in the police stations. A senior police officer’s office is no less intimidating than the ordinary police station. So, there is possibility of a statement suiting the prosecution being extracted through fear, and often physical violence. So, the present practice of giving a statement before a magistrate must not be diluted. Apparently, this recommendation of the Malimath Committee does not merit acceptance.
Another recommendation was to permit holding an accused in police custody upto a maximum of 30 days instead of present 15-day limit. This suggestion appears unwarranted. Except in terror-related cases, the courts should not allow police custody for more than 15 days.
One more recommendation of the Malimath Committee was to lower the rigour necessary for a witness account to be accepted as credible evidence. This idea is fraught because it will undermine the idea of proving a guilt ‘beyond reasonable doubt’. There can be miscarriage of justice if the requirement of standard of proof is lowered.
There is no denying the fact that faith in the criminal justice system has been progressively declining among the citizens. But, doing away with the safeguards against arbitrariness and misuse of state power for expediting disposal of cases and increasing conviction rates will be a step in the opposite direction. Deep circumspection and sagacity is needed before deciding to tweak the system.