Several women lawyers, from across the country, have written to NLU-D Vice Chancellor, Prof. (Dr.) Ranbir Singh, the Chairperson of the ‘Committee for Reforms in Criminal Laws’, expressing their serious concerns regarding the lack of diversity in the constitution of the committee. They highlight that the committee does not have representation of relevant stakeholders, for there are no women, Dalits, religious minorities, adivasis, LGBTQ persons, or persons with disabilities on the Committee.
According to the signatories to the letter, “over decades it has been established in various jurisdictions that the only manner in which systemic and institutional biases can be cured is by ensuring diversity and representation of various stake holders in the legal reform process”.
“As women lawyers, it seems to us simply absurd that, when a large part of the questionnaire is devoted specifically to reform of sexual offences, women practitioners of criminal law have not been included on the Committee. Can a discussion on criminalisation of honour killing or mob lynching be meaningful without the inclusion of Dalits and religious minorities on the Committee? These are but a few stray examples. However, the point we are trying to emphasise is that plurality of views and debate is essential for a rigorous and democratic exercise in law reform – and the only way to ensure such plurality and debate is to ensure diversity and adequate representation”, the letter states.
The letter, which has been signed by senior advocates Indira Jaising, R.Vaigai, Gayatri Singh, Priya Hingorani and advocates Vrinda Grover, Nandita Rao etc, has also highlighted the inadequate representation of practicing advocates in the committee.
“Any need reform in criminal laws must be articulated by those who, on a daily basis, engage with these laws and see how they play out in practice. Else, this will either become a mere academic exercise, devoid of real impact, or worse, will result in harm”, the signatories to the letter said.
Yesterday also several members of the legal fraternity had written a letter to the Chairperson and Members to the said Committee highlighting lack of transparency in its functioning. The signatories included former judges of the Supreme Court and High Courts, Senior Advocates, academicians, and retired bureaucrats.
Consultative Methodology and Time Frame
The women lawyers have also criticized the methodology adopted by the Committee. They say that they are given to understand the expert consultative process is to take place over the course of the next two and half months through a series of six questionnaires, each dealing separately with the Indian Penal Code, the Code of Criminal Procedure and the Indian Evidence Act. This entire approach, the letter states, is deeply flawed – Criminal Law rests on three interlocked and interlinked statues.
The Committee’s schedule of releasing separate questionnaires for each statute on different dates and seeking isolated responses betrays a lack of understanding of the working of criminal law jurisprudence.
“A questionnaire based methodology of soliciting contributions from expert consultants seems to indicate that the Committee has already arrived at certain forgone conclusions and is appearing to merely evaluate whether these positions garner enough endorsements or not. There is no scope for eliciting from experts what reforms are required outside of the confines of the questions posed. Furthermore, certain issues are deserving of contributions that go much beyond a 200 word limit! A law reform exercise which applies a methodology reminiscent of feedback Google Forms runs the grave risk of being rendered farcical”, the letter says.
On the time frame set out by the committee, the women lawyers state that it defeats any serious engagement with any of the “expert consultants”. That a two and a half month time frame is grossly inadequate for such a task is an understatement.
Committee’s response to accusations
In response, the chairperson of the said Committee issued a statement saying that the committee respects all the opinions and suggestions made to it. It was also clarified that the structural part of it e.g. composition- lies with the M.H.A. but for its functional part the committee is completely autonomous and willing to respect the suggestions.
“Its structure consists of academicians, advocates, judges and other professionals, and as such, the Committee has remarkable diversity and competence in professional experience, affiliations, and, scholarship. Moreover, nothing restricts us to acquire the advice, guidance, knowledge and experience of a galaxy of people who are available in this country and are willing to extend their cooperation to us. This makes us quite confident of accomplishing this task to the satisfaction of all the stakeholders in the system and society”, chairperson Prof. Ranbir Singh said.
According to the committee, the shorter time notice of response is due to the fact that the assignment has to be completed within duration of six months. It also said it was willing to make the questionnaires available in various regional languages.