Menon committee recommends:
· Crimes to be reclassified under four codes; tackling marginal offences via civil/administrative procedures
· Online registration of FIRs
· Statements to police on audio or video be made admissible evidence
· Code of Ethics for criminal lawyers; legal help for the poor and weaker sections; better witness protection
· Liberal use of bail and probation, to avoid short-term imprisonment.
***Few may remember the six persons mowed down by Sanjeev Nanda’s BMW eight years back. But it’s tough forgetting images of defence and prosecution lawyers subverting justice on TV. The delays, witnesses turning hostile and the lawyers shielding the influential accused …the motifs recur every time a high-profile case comes to court. The verdicts in the Jessica Lall and Priyadarshini Mattoo cases held out the first glimmer of hope. Then a committee was set up in June 2006 to draft a national policy on criminal justice. Headed by Dr N.R. Madhava Menon, director, National Judicial Academy, Bhopal, the panel’s other members were Anil Chowdhry, former secretary, internal security; Kamal Kumar, director, National Police Academy; M.D. Rijhwani, senior member, Bombay Bar; and Dr P.K. Seth, joint secretary, judicial.One year on, the panel has submitted its deliberations to the government. These have now been sent for examination by a consultative committee of the Union home ministry. Suggesting sweeping changes, the underlying criterion of the policy is to have a “justice delivery system which is faster, fairer, uncomplicated and inexpensive”.One of its most basic but significant recommendations is online registration of FIRs. Most police stations in the metros have already been computerised; the process of modernisation of police stations elsewhere is on. Online FIRs would to a large extent circumvent the problem of the police turning away victims and refusing to register FIRs.The policy also seeks to redefine and reclassify crimes to reduce the burden on courts and prisons. It recommends a fourfold code-based classification of all offences presently covered by the Indian Penal Code (IPC) and local laws.The reclassification revolves around bunching together offences with similar punishments. Thus, marriage disputes and other civil offences have been brought under a Social Welfare Offences Code, along with prohibition offences, vagrancy and minor campus indiscipline. Arrest and detention in these cases is not necessary. “Compensation and community service can better meet the ends of justice,” notes the committee.More serious offences that require some level of police intervention have been classified under a Correctional Offences Code. These include offences punishable with up to three-year imprisonment and/or fines. Such offences can in most cases be handled by Lok Adalats which could impose fines, probation or short-term imprisonment.Only grave offences, punishable with imprisonment beyond three years and the death penalty, says the panel, should be included in the IPC. It’s in these cases that the panel wants the state to spend its maximum energy, time and resources, keeping in mind a “need for efficiency, effectiveness and fairness”.The final classification relates to the Economic Offences Code. This would cover select financial offences, the investigation of which requires multi-disciplinary, inter-state and international effort. The committee also makes a strong case for certain international crimes and acts of terror to be designated as federal offences, so that they can be dealt with more effectively by an all-India law enforcement agency rather than being left to the state police.Having categorised the crimes, the committee moves on to dispensation of justice. Admitting the prosecution “to be the weakest link of the criminal justice system”, it emphasises the need to draw up a separate code of ethics for lawyers serving this wing of law. Bar councils and criminal courts are to be entrusted with jointly enforcing it. The committee calls for special care to be taken for prosecutor selection, training, service conditions and supervision.There is no rest for the defence either. Noting that the “justice system seems heavily geared towards the rich and the powerful”, the committee urges the setting up of a Public Defender System to make legal services available to those who cannot afford an expensive defence. Besides, the committee enjoins upon the criminal justice administration to adopt proactive policies to protect the weaker sections of society, including women, children and SC/STs.Criminal courts figure next. They have an obligation to give speedy justice by expediting all processes, note Menon and his men. “Day-to-day trial has to be restored,” with the government providing the courts with better resources and infrastructure to speed up trial procedures. Victim and witness protection too is emphasised, with the panel recommending facilities for victims and witnesses in criminal courts and that they be “treated with due courtesy”. The need for a witness protection law, as suggested by the Law Commission, is reiterated even as it advocates punishment for false testimonies.The committee also tenders a solution to prevent the overcrowding of jails. It suggests that undertrial prisoners be kept in separate institutions. Bail and probation should be made available to keep the prison population within reasonable limits. The panel recognises the need for the police to speed up the process of investigations, proposes that they be allowed to use electronic surveillance more liberally than now, but frowns upon custodial violence, and suggests it be dealt with most severely. The panel also feels that statements made to the police on video or audio be made admissible as evidence provided a lawyer has been made available to the accused.Finally, to ensure the smooth functioning of the system, an independent, professionally managed department of criminal justice under the MHA is advocated. The department will have two major divisions: a bureau of criminal justice statistics to collate all information relating to crime, and a research and monitoring division to analyse data and engage in pilot projects.