From criminalising marital rape, making sexual offences gender-neutral to legalising euthanasia and revisiting sedition — a five-member committee constituted by the Ministry of Home Affairs is looking at a sweeping overhaul of criminal laws.
“Does the offence of sedition under Section 124A require omission or any amendment in terms of its definition, scope and cognizability?” is one of the 49 questions that are being considered.
The committee, headed by Dr Ranbir Singh, Vice-Chancellor of National Law University, Delhi, has sought a round of online public and expert consultation on substantive and procedural criminal law and the law on evidence.
The committee, constituted on May 5, is also considering the introduction of special laws to counter violent incidents that have dominated social and political discourse including mob-lynching and “honour killing.”
In December 2019, Union Home Minister Amit Shah had informed Parliament that the government was looking at necessary amendments in IPC and CrPC to deal with issues related to mob lynching, as members of Parliament called for a separate law to curb it.
Refreshing the code for today
The indian Penal Code and Indian Evidence Act were enacted by the Imperial Legislative Council in 1860 and 1872 respectively. Reform of the code, its statutes is long overdue. Changing laws on key issues concerning criminality, the idea of justice and gender equality need more, wider consultations.
He had also underlined the government’s “resolve” to amend the British era statutes earlier. The changes to IPC and CrPC had been first recommended by the 2003 Malimath Committee set up by then Home Minister L K Advani.
The Ranbir Singh committee has sought suggestions on whether there is a need to alter the minimum age of criminal responsibility to commit an offence. In 2015, the law was amended to treat a juvenile above the age of 16 years as an adult for heinous crimes and be punished with life imprisonment or death.
Many of the committee’s questions seek to harmonise the laws with judgments of the Supreme Court on issues such as euthanasia and sexual intercourse of man and his minor wife. In 2017, the SC in a landmark ruling had said that although marital rape is not a criminal offence, sexual intercourse of a man with his minor wife will be considered rape.
In a separate category on sexual offences, the committee has asked if “in the light of contemporary discourse on sexual and reproductive rights of women,” if the offence of causing miscarriage can be decriminalised.
The committee also sought to discuss the big question involved in rape cases: of defining consent. Although courts have settled the law on the consent of a woman in rape cases, it is an issue that is often debated. “What should be the standard of consent under Section 375 of the IPC?” the committee asked.
On revising punishment for various offences, the committee asked if “additional types of punishment — based on objectives of deterrence, rehabilitation, restoration etc — be inserted” in the Indian Penal Code. It did not, however, specify what additional types of punishment are being considered.
The IPC prescribes fines, imprisonment, forfeiture of property and the death penalty. In another question on punishment, the committee asked if there are any offences for which the quantum of punishment must be revised.
The committee also asked for a mode of rationalising fines collected from offenders and if fines under the penal code must be re-adjusted for inflation across offences, either automatically or on a one-time basis.
The committee has also started a discussion on subjects new to the legal landscape in India such as corporate homicide. In the United Kingdom, a law was enacted in 2007 to criminalise activities of a corporation, including employers, if such activities lead to the death of any person.
Apart from Singh, the committee includes G S Bajpai, Registrar of National Law University, Delhi; Balraj Chauhan, Vice-Chancellor of Dharmashastra National Law University in Jabalpur; senior advocate Mahesh Jethmalani and former Delhi district court judge GP Thareja.
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