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A letter signed by lawyers and former judges raises concerns that the present Committee "lacks diversity both in terms of the social identity of the members, as well as their professional background and experience."
The Criminal Reforms Committee recently constituted by the Union Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) has been urged by lawyers and former judges to ensure diversity and transparency in its functioning by disclosing details regarding the terms of its reference and how it proposes to function.
A letter signed by lawyers, academics, and former judges and bureaucrats working with the criminal justice system has raised concerns that the present Committee "lacks diversity both in terms of the social identity of the members, as well as their professional background and experience."
The five-member Committee was constituted earlier this year under the Chairmanship of National Law University, Delhi Vice-Chancellor Prof (Dr) Ranbir Singh.
The letter addressed to the Committee members points out that "unlike previous law reform efforts of similar magnitude, this Committee does not consist of full-time members."
This, the letter notes, is despite the existence of the 22nd Law Commission of India, which has the mandate to recommend law reform, although it remains understaffed.
The Criminal Reforms Committee has now been called on to "demonstrate its bonafides and its commitment to a rigorous law reform exercise by ensuring full transparency regarding its constitution and its functioning."
In particular, the Committee has been urged to provide the following details which have not been published thus far on the Committee’s website:
The MHA notification constituting the Committee, and specifically any communication detailing the Terms of Reference of the Committee and the time frame provided for completing this exercise.
Any project proposal or concept note submitted by National Law University, Delhi or its members or research centres, to the MHA or to any other competent authority with respect to the setting up or functioning of this Committee
Details on whether the Committee will work independently of the MHA or any other ministry. Specifically, will the report of the Committee be finalized in consultation with, or after the approval of the MHA or any other ministry?
Given the broad mandate of the Committee, it has also been asserted that it is imperative to take steps to ensure that there is meaningful public engagement while framing the criminal law reforms. To this end, the letter has also called for the following measures to be taken by the Committee so that stakeholders may effectively participate in the process:
Release upfront, in one single tranche, the list of all questions/issues on which the Committee will be seeking inputs .
Provide at least 3 months time for stakeholders to respond to all questions/issues.
Ensure that the questionnaires are made available in all major Indian languages.
Remove word limits for responding to the questions: A 200-word limit, or any other word limit, in response to complex policy questions does not allow for any robust engagement with the questions, the letter notes.
Include more expertise and diversity: Create sub-committees with outside experts and other consultants with established track records in the field of criminal justice who can redress the lack of diversity and experience in the Committee's current composition.
Provide additional mechanisms for inputs.
Commit to transparency and greater stakeholder engagement in the functioning of the Committee.
To this end, it has been urged that the Committee also agrees to the following:
Making all responses received by the Committee publicly available on the website of the Committee.
Making public and ensuring wide dissemination of the Committee’s draft report for public feedback on the website of the Committee for at least one month, with advance notice on when the report will be made available for feedback.
The signatories to the letter include former Supreme Court judges Aftab Alam, Madan Lokur and Gopala Gowda, former Delhi High Court Chief Justice AP Shah, 10 former judges of various High Courts, a host of lawyers including Senior Advocates, academics, and former bureaucrats.
Recently, the Bar Council of Delhi had addressed a letter to the Union Home Minister urging that representatives from Bar Councils also be included in the Central Reforms Committee given that, "the legal community in India has many well experienced experts in criminal law and by virtue of their dealing with criminal cases extensively, they can help the government for bringing a better system and suggest suitable amendments."