Maintenance of public order while preserving constitutional liberties is at the heart of a harmonious society and democratic system. Independent, accountable and efficient crime investigation unaffected by partisan pressures and populist impulses is a critical requirement in ensuring justice. Strong, independent and efficient prosecution driving investigation and securing just punishment of wrongdoers is vital for the criminal justice system to act as a deterrent. Fair, speedy and efficient settlement of disputes at an affordable cost is critical for mutual trust and economic growth.

However, in India, due to the absence of the state’s capacity to enforce law and mete out justice, rule of law has all but collapsed. A centralized and partisan police force, a feeble and inadequate prosecution, a slow and inefficient judiciary and archaic and complex procedural laws have led to the failure of the justice system. These challenges will be the central themes to deliberate on in the conference.

A case for many specific and practical reforms to strengthen rule of law has been eloquently made out by various Law Commission, Police Commission, Administrative Reforms Commission reports and by legal experts throughout the country. Some effort has been made to implement these recommendations but we still have a long way to go to ensure our institutions are empowered to deliver better results. The second edition of the Indian Democracy at Work conference will bring together judicial experts, legal luminaries, police officers, academicians, civil society organizations, journalists, business people, and the general public for in-depth discussion into the challenges plaguing our judicial system, with the hope of converting meaningful conversations into definitive action.

The theme for the second edition of the Indian Democracy at Work conference is ‘Rule of Law’. The failure of the justice system which has resulted in the near breakdown of rule of law in many pockets of the country can be attributed to several shortcomings encompassing all wings of the system. Although there is a burning desire to completely overhaul the system to ensure fair, equitable, and speedy administration of justice, such radical change is neither practicable nor palatable to those that benefit from the status quo. However, a little can go a long way in restoring public faith in the justice system and sustaining order.

In this context, the conference aims to explore four main sub-themes:

  • Police Reforms

Our police forces have diversified duties and are stretched to the limit. The number of policemen per unit population remains low by global standards despite rapid urbanisation and rise in crime. The high degree of centralization of functions in a single police force is a serious impediment to the efficient discharge of their duties. Political control of police personnel undermines credibility of crime investigation and erodes public trust. Public pressure and political control sometimes compel the police to resort to unwholesome methods like third degree and extra-judicial punishments to produce short term results to appease the public sentiment. Policemen are seen as symbols of state power and agents of coercion and retribution rather than as friends and protectors of people. Enhancing the strength of the police force, improving training, deploying the latest technology and adopting community policing are important measures required to upgrade policing in India. Moreover, an independent, accountable and efficient crime investigation unaffected by populist impulses is integral in ensuring justice.

  • Prosecution Reforms

Prosecution acts as the essential bridge between the police and the court, and is an integral part of justice delivery. It is therefore vital that an independent wing of police force fully in charge of crime investigation functions under the direct control of independent prosecutors appointed as constitutional functionaries. Alarmingly, the number of prosecutors in India is lesser than the number of judges! This clearly shows the feeble status of the prosecution within the criminal justice system. Consequently, the investigation is largely driven by the police and has become ridden by undue political influence. Despite an attempt to create an independent prosecution, many states haven’t put in the effort to strengthen the prosecution wing, the net result being that the prosecution still acts subordinate to the police. Only when an independent investigation and prosecution work hand in hand to build a conclusive case against the accused, backed by scientific evidence and practical laws, can the criminal trial proceed efficiently and succeed in punishing the wrongdoers. 

  • Judicial Reforms

The dire shortage of judges in India places a heavy caseload on the judiciary. Moreover, cases are registered at a much faster pace than they are disposed of, creating a backlog. As a result, there is an enormous pendency of cases in courts at all levels, with the situation particularly grave in subordinate courts. Procedural complexities, excessive delays, use of English language etc. drive up the cost of litigation and act as barriers to justice for many of the poor and illiterate. Highly competent and successful lawyers are rarely willing to give up their lucrative practice and become judges. As a result, the quality of subordinate judges is limited. Local Courts with summary procedures can provide speedy relief and justice in many simple civil and criminal cases, including cases of ill-treatment of women, at a low cost in rural and urban areas, but currently, they are not being harnessed to their full potential. Furthermore, we do not have a law ensuring judicial standards and accountability of higher judiciary. The Constitutional Courts are loaded with frivolous appeals and their role and standard in deciding upon important constitutional matters is faltering. These challenges have eroded public faith in the justice system, leaving many to suffer silently and creating a private industry administering rough and ready justice.

  • Procedural Reforms

Due to the Indian legal system’s adversarial nature, deficiency in the investigation or in the prosecution cannot be rectified by the judge, who is precluded from playing any active role in the trial of an accused. The underutilisation of provisions that empower judges to order the production of any document or examine any person, needless adjournments, arbitrary classification of offences, and the preclusion of any confession made to a police officer from being proved against the accused in a trial are some of the procedural complexities that hamper the speedy disposal of criminal cases. These delays lead to overcrowding in prisons, in which more than half of the prisoners are under trial prisoners. Similarly, excessive adjournments, multiplicity of appeals, underutilisation of existing provisions and poor classification and monitoring of cases are some of the reasons for enormous delays in civil cases. A foundation of a robust set of procedural rules, keeping pace with the ever-changing societies and nature of crime, is a prerequisite for an efficient and effective justice system.