The promise of new criminal laws under test

Stakeholder consultations preceded the revamp, but bills lacked debate time in parliament. Judicial scrutiny may focus on police remand and replacing sedition. If successful, these laws could simplify justice delivery, improving lives.
Image used for representation.
Image used for representation.

With the three new criminal laws to revamp the justice delivery system coming into force, the police across the country have already started invoking them. The Bharatiya Nyaya Sanhita, which replaced the Indian Penal Code, 1860, has fewer sections—358 as compared to the IPC’s 511. Also, 21 new crimes have been introduced and the law has been given more teeth by extending the imprisonment awarded in 41 crimes, enhancing fines in 82, and prescribing minimum punishment in 25.

The other two new laws are the Bharatiya Nagarik Suraksha Sanhita and the Bharatiya Sakshya Adhiniyam that replace the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973 and the Indian Evidence Act, 1872. Among the positives in the BNS is the provision to file a ‘zero FIR’ at any police station irrespective of jurisdiction, online registration of complaints, eliminating harassment by letting people report crime electronically without visiting a police station, and mandatory video recording of the scenes of crimes considered heinous. One of the salient features of the new law is mandatory forensic investigation in cases punishable with seven years of imprisonment or more. But since the infrastructure and manpower are not available yet, the states have until June 2029 to build them. Specific timelines have been set for police action and the judiciary, enhancing their accountability.

As for cases booked before July 1, they will run concurrently under the old laws since the new laws cannot function retrospectively. However, procedural law could be considered for application depending on the case. Since the average span for a case getting finally decided—from a magistrate’s court to the Supreme Court—is two to three decades, the judiciary will have to straddle two parallel systems of justice till then. The judiciary is already creaking under a huge backlog, with the Supreme Court itself having over 80,000 pending cases. Whether it would be able to manage the additional load is anybody’s guess.

Wide consultations with all stakeholders preceded the revamp, but the bills failed to get enough parliament time for debate, though it went to a House committee for vetting. Some sections could come under judicial scrutiny, like those on police remand and replacing sedition with treason. On balance, if the laws end up making the justice delivery system faster, fairer and hassle-free, they would have made people’s lives easier.

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