With the much-awaited Motor Vehicle (MV) Act’s amendments coming into effect on September 1, people will think twice before breaking the law. The penalties have been made too stringent; that will be a deterrent for those on the driving seat. These amendments have been made in the backdrop of the fact that India occupies the top slot in the number of fatalities in road accidents. As per NCRB, in 2017, 4,64,910 road accidents were reported in the country, claiming 1,47,913 lives and causing injuries to 4,70,975 persons. Though this showed a marginal reduction in accidents and fatality rates as compared to the preceding two years, the number is too gigantic to ignore its gravity.
Besides enhancing penalties for most of the traffic violations, a new section 199A has been introduced in the Act to deter juveniles from falling victim to road accidents. As per this new section, the owner of the motor vehicle or the guardian of a juvenile will be held accountable not only for the offence committed by the juvenile but will also be punished additionally with imprisonment up to three years and a fine of `25,000. Also, it shall be presumed that the use of a motor vehicle by the juvenile was done with the consent of the guardian or the owner of the vehicle unless proved otherwise.
Holding someone else liable for the acts committed by the other (i.e. vicarious liability) is a fundamentally flawed principle under criminal law and therefore must be deliberated upon by legal experts and civil society.More commonly, vicarious liability is employed in civil cases, only as an exception to the general rule and both the person at whose behest the act is done as well as the person who does the act, are held liable.
Generally, a master or employer is held accountable for the acts of his servant or employee, done within the course of employment and thus liable to compensate for the damages. In criminal law, vicarious liability assigns mens rea i.e., guilt to a person for wrongful acts committed by someone else. Generally, no one can be held liable for a criminal offence committed by the other unless he abetted or conspired or ordered to commit that criminal offence.
However, there are a few exceptions in the Indian law, like, the owner or occupier of land is held criminally liable (to be punished with fine not exceeding one thousand rupees) if an unlawful assembly is allowed to be held or a riot is committed on his land. However, in both the cases, the purpose is not to punish the owner or occupier of land for the offence of an unlawful assembly or a riot, but for allowing the use of land and not informing the police. Also, the punishment given is fine, not imprisonment.
One of the differences between a civil and criminal offence is the type of punishment given to the offender. It is damages for a civil offence and imprisonment for a criminal offence. The relationship between the guardian and a juvenile is not of a master-servant. Generally, to hold a person criminally liable for an act, two ingredients must be essentially proved viz., actus reus (action) and mens rea (intention to commit offence or guilty mind).
An act also includes omission. Therefore, even if it is assumed that the guardian or the owner omitted to act diligently and thus contributed to the actus reus in the form of omission, the mens rea to such omission cannot be attributed to the guardian or the owner. Mens rea to commit a criminal offence has to originate from the person committing actus reus. Therefore, sending the guardian or owner to prison for the offence committed by a juvenile is not a sound proposition.
Secondly, the Act provides that the guardian of a juvenile or the owner of vehicle shall be punished more severely than the delinquent juvenile; first, for the offence committed by a juvenile; second, an additional punishment of imprisonment up to three years and with a fine of `25,000. The whole provision shall be applicable even in case of the first offence committed by a juvenile.
Further, the MV Act already punishes the owner or person in charge of a motor vehicle for permitting unauthorised persons (including juvenile) to drive vehicle with imprisonment up to three months or with fine which may extend to (now) `5,000. Surprisingly, the punishment for causing death of any person owing to rash and negligent act (as per section 304A of the IPC), as of now, is imprisonment only up to two years. Thus, the punishment to the guardian or the owner is not only unjustified but also excessive and disproportionate to the offence of being negligent in lending his motor vehicle.
Recently, the Supreme Court, while deciding a case (pertaining to dishonour of cheques) under the Negotiable Instrument Act, 1881, held that ‘looking to the nature of offence which is regulatory in nature’, monetary punishment was sufficient and therefore modified the sentence of imprisonment given by the lower courts. The MV Act being essentially a regulatory law can do away with the provision of imprisonment as additional punishment, at least in cases of vicarious liability. Cancellation of registration of the motor vehicle for 12 months and not granting the delinquent juvenile a driving licence till he or she attains the age of 25 years seem good enough deterrent for the guardian or the owner to prevent the juvenile from using a motor vehicle.