From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :
Prelims level : NA
Mains level : Decriminalization of certain offences
Last week, the Union Government tabled the Jan Vishwas Bill, 2022, (Bill) in the Parliament with the objective of “decriminalising” 183 offences across 42 legislations and enhancing the ease of living and doing business in India.
Jan Vishwas (Amendment of Provisions) Bill, 2022,
- It sought to amend 42 Acts to reduce the compliance burden on individuals and businesses and ensure ease of doing business.
- Some Acts that are amended by the Bill include: the Indian Post Office Act, 1898, the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986, the Public Liability Insurance Act, 1991, and the Information Technology Act, 2000.
Key provisions of the Bill
(1) Replacing imprisonment with money penalty:
Under the Bill, several offences with an imprisonment term in certain Acts have been decriminalised by imposing only a monetary penalty under the –
- Agricultural Produce (Grading and Marking) Act, 1937, counterfeiting grade designation marks is punishable with imprisonment of up to three years and a fine of up to five thousand rupees. The Bill replaces this with a penalty of eight lakh rupees.
- Information Technology Act, 2000, disclosing personal information in breach of a lawful contract is punishable with imprisonment of up to three years, or a fine of up to five lakh rupees, or both. The Bill replaces this with a penalty of up to 25 lakh rupees.
- Patents Act, 1970, a person selling a falsely represented article as patented in India is subject to a fine of up to one lakh rupees. The Bill replaces the fine with a penalty, which may be up to ten lakh rupees. In case of a continuing claim, there shall be an additional penalty of one thousand rupees per day.
(2) Revision of fines and penalties:
- The Bill increases the fines and penalties for various offences in the specified Acts.
- Further, these fines and penalties will be increased by 10% of the minimum amount every three years.
- It is a welcome move and can be viewed as an attempt to reverse the trend of overcriminalisation. However, there is much that needs to be done in order to institutionalise efforts aimed at decriminalisation.
Why was this legislation brought up?
- Rise in criminal cases: An unprincipled growth of criminal law has long been a cause of concern for scholars of law.
- Political motives: The act of criminalisation often becomes a medium for governments to put across a strong image as opposed to punishing wrongful conduct.
- Over-criminalization: Governments offer little in the way of justifications to support such decisions. This phenomenon has been termed “overcriminalisation” by scholars.
- Increased burden on Judiciary: As per the National Judicial Data Grid, of the 4.3 crore pending cases, nearly 3.2 crore cases are in relation to criminal proceedings.
- Overcrowding of prisons: Similarly, the rise in the prison population is also proof of this. As per the NCRB’s Prison Statistics of 2021, a total of 5.54 lakh prisoners were confined in prisons against a capacity of 4.25 lakh.
Scope of the Bill
- Hefty fines cannot create deterrence: The Jan Vishwas Bill either omits penal provisions or replaces them with fines in legislation. These are primarily offences which are regulatory in nature.
- Quasi-decriminalisation: By and large, an examination of the provisions of the Bill reveals that stress has been on the replacement of imprisonment clauses with fines. This can hardly be termed as ‘decriminalisation’.
Achieving decriminalisation in real sense
There is much that is required for the efforts aimed at decriminalisation to fructify in any meaningful way.
(1) Stigma of fines to create deterrence
- In his seminal piece titled – ‘Is the Criminal Law a Lost Cause?’ Mr. Andrew Ashworth’s creates a distinction between regulatory offences and penal offences and exemplifies the same through the functional distinction between a tax and a fine.
- While the purpose of a tax is primarily regulatory in nature, a fine carries with it an element of censure and stigma.
(2) De-linking petty economic offences with over-criminalization
- Secondly, the Observer Research Foundation’s report titled Jailed for Doing Business found that there are more than 26,134 imprisonment clauses in a total of 843 economic legislations, rules and regulations which seek to regulate businesses and economic activities in India.
- In this light, the number of offences deregulated under the Bill seems to be a mere drop in India’s regulatory framework.
(3) Regulatory offences to be considered for ‘decriminalisation’
- This need to be prioritised not only from the point of view of the ease of doing business, but also from the points of view of the ills that plague our criminal justice system itself.
- Debates are ongoing about the decriminalisation of several penal offences such as sedition, offences under NDPS Act & UAPA Acts, triple talaq and anti-conversion laws etc.
- There is an urgent need to assess these offences on a principled basis.
- The intent of the Bill is merely to ensure that imprisonment is replaced with fines for as many offences as possible.
- The extent to which it succeeds in ‘decriminalising’ offences, however, is questionable.
- If these faults are to be rectified, it is pertinent that a more comprehensive exercise is undertaken and that the government prioritises the needs and requirements of the criminal justice system.
- Still this legislation is a welcome move in all senses.
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