Fault lines in the Indian Criminal Justice System

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”. -Martin Luthar King Jr.
Law should not sit limply, while those who defy it go free and those who seek its protection lose hope”. (Jennison v. Baker (1972) 1 All ER 997).

Ashok Bhan
The sovereign power of the Indian State is never felt as starkly as in interactions with the criminal justice system. Broadly stated, the influence of the police is all pervasive when it comes to enforcing penal statutes. In colonial India, the vast police powers enjoyed by the Government was the object of sharp criticism and ridicule insofar as there appeared to be no accountability or oversight and no form of redress. It is interesting note that the nationalists who strongly abjured the powers of the police were enthusiastic to retain them in the post-colonial nation and quickly thereafter paved the way for its rapid expansion.
The early decades of independence were characterized by the ‘license-raj’ where innumerable statutes were introduced to curb economic offences. These included the various laws passed by state governments to implement the directive principle of prohibition, further various economic legislations were introduced to fortify the commodity control as pre-existent. Most of these statutes were enacted to be ‘special’ legislations and operated outside the bounds of ordinary criminal procedure. The need for warrants were done away with and securing bail was made particularly difficult.
The criminal law jurisprudence that we see today, is undeniably a legacy of the colonial state and the early decisions made in the wake of post-colonial India. While the scope and breadth of police powers have remained the same, they have suitably modified to deal with the more sophisticated offences of the 21st century. A laudable development in this regard is the introduction of the Letter Rogatory system where international governments pledge mutual legal assistance in relations to crimes which have been perpetrated across international boundaries.
There are always two sides to thinking about criminal reform. One the one hand, the state will have to ensure that the powers of the police and associated magistracy is not diluted, negatively impacting their ability to enforce the laws of the land. On the other hand, as various examples of custodial violence and extrajudicial killings have brought to fore, there is a need to protect the citizen from the abuse of police powers. It is in the junction between these two paradigms that the courts of the country have a important responsibility.
The magistrate has been granted supervisory and corrective powers over the functioning of the police. The magistrate interacts with the police and the accuse person at various stages from the grant of remand to police custody and to extend from time to time as required. This also involves examining the accused to accurately discern their well-being to call for medical tests where it appears that the accused person is being subjected to violence, intimidation and torture. This is a particularly important functions since accused persons are usually powerless when in police custody.
The Supreme Court of India has in various decisions stated that the magistrate is not to act as a post-office for the prosecution, merely reiterating the version of the police. We have seen that in various recent examples, the magistrates do not appear to be functioning as independent supervisors of the police. At a first level much needs to be done to liberate the magistrates from the veil of executive influence to better discipline and reign in the abuse of police powers.
Various reports have brought to the fore the despicable state of under-trials in India. It is appalling that over one-third of the people presently occupying the prisons. India is known to have the third largest under-trial population in the world. In such cases, the trials have been pending for decades and the accused person is condemned to suffer inordinate periods of imprisonments while still awaiting trial. Once again, the magistracy is called upon to act. The Supreme Court has reiterated time and again that pre-trial detention can only be justified if there is a real anticipation of the accused person prejudicing the trial, influencing witnesses or absconding. Even in this respect, the prosecution is happy to provide exaggerated versions of apprehensions and the magistrates continue to act as post-boxes.
It is in this juncture that there is also a need to address the fact that quality of legal representation makes a world of a difference of the accused person. While people with the means are able to approach higher courts in revisions or appeals to secure their rights, a vast section of the population who do not possess the means are to be provided free legal aid. While on paper, India appears to have a thriving legal aid system, the truth of the matter perks it ugly head out from newspapers are reports which show that most often the legal aid lawyer has never met with the accused to understand their case thereby making a mockery of the constitutional right to legal representation.
In this context it may also be relevant to note that the Indian police are one of the most powerful police forces in the democratic world insofar as they have wide powers under special legislations such the UAPA, NSA etc. to detain an individual without trial for an extremely long period of time. While there is no doubt that these legislations are meant to deal with a completely different category of offences, the system fails to provide any redress to those wrongly arrested. In such cases, the magistrate appears to be completely bereft of any powers or inclination to take the investigating agencies to task to demonstrate even a semblance of a case. The burden of proof is completely reversed in seeking bail, making it impossible for accused person to prove their innocence while still is custody and without being able to lead evidence. This is another area that need special attention from the courts and legislature alike.
We have seen however a lot judicial reform when it comes to sentencing, mandatory minimum sentences for minor offences have been done away with and it has become a norm for courts to separately hear aggravating and mitigating circumstances prior to sentencing. While the sentencing procedure has seen a marked improvement in the last few decades, the issue of prison reform is a looming crisis that successive governments have simply failed to engage with. Prison is to serve not just a retributive role but is supposed to also help reform the convicted individual and to imbibe valuable skills. In this respect, prisons (save a few minor exceptions) seem to be violent and neglected den of vice, thereby increasing the convicted individual’s propensity for crime.
All the above aspects require a detailed evaluation, sober assessment and robust reforms are to be introduced. It is hoped that the recently constituted committee for criminal justice reform constituted by the Union Government can address these fault lines before they yawn open to signify the abject failure of the Indian criminal justice system.
(The author is Senior Advocate, Supreme Court of India)