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Time for more justice, less laws

June 18, 2014 11:16 IST

The government must get rid of the clutter of old, obsolete laws.

One of the long overdue steps promised by the new government is to repeal old and irrelevant laws that clutter the statute books. This country is known for having the largest number of legislation, the central Acts alone numbering about 3,000 and state laws which might total at least three times more. The situation recalls the truism of Cicero: more laws, less justice.

Whenever a socio-legal crisis arises, the government promises more laws to get over the embarrassment. If there is a rape epidemic, the concerned minister will undertake to pass a law to end it for all times; if a SUV driven by a drunken youth runs over pavement sleepers, let there be another law. The possibilities are endless. In the end, all these theatrics fade from public memory.

Before passing more Acts in the 16th Parliament, the lawmakers could think of un-legislating a long list of outdated laws that have defied the ravages of time. Even scrubbing them with amendments will not make them relevant. The Law Commission had made a study of such statutes in 1998 and presented a lengthy list of legislation which could be jettisoned, benefiting the public and the courts. It had named 166 central Acts, one of which goes to the days of the East India Company, namely, the Coastal Vessels Act, 1838. The country could do away with the Bikrama Singh’s Estates Act, 1883 and the Mirzapur Stone Mahal Act, 1886.

The Livestock Importation Act, 1898, was originally meant to regulate the import of livestock liable to be affected by infectious disorders. It was recommended for repeal, but it was dusted and kept alive with an amendment in 2001 adding ‘livestock products’ to the definition of ‘livestock’. The Glanders and Farcy Act, 1899, appoints inspectors to search and destroy diseased horses, asses and mules. The Dourine Act, 1910, deals with the castration of diseased horses and compensation to be paid to the owner.

There are statutes that still refer to His/Her Majesty. Acts such as the Prisoners’ Removal Act, 1884, hark back to the days when convicts were shipped to Mauritius or Singapore. There are at least 11 such colonial era statutes still in force, which might interest only students of legal history.

The wartime government also passed permanent ordinances which never lapsed. The Collective Fines Ordinance of 1942 could still be a guide to the current thinking of passing a new law to deter communal riots, but the original law served only the colonial masters to suppress protests. Then there are ordinances that belong to the legal Jurassic museum like the Secunderabad Marriage Validation Ordinance, 1945.

Mere age of the law is no reason to repeal it. There are several statutes such as the Indian Penal Code, 1860, and the Civil Procedure Code, 1908, which still serve the legal system well, despite controversies over unnatural sex and convoluted procedural requirements. These laws have been amended to make them work better. But there are hundreds which could be scrapped right away, vouched by the Law Commission.

Lugging outworn laws over centuries is not peculiar to this country. There are ridiculous rules everywhere that made Bumble say that law is an ass. It is reported that in 29 states in the United States, it is legal to fire someone for being gay. In Thailand, it is illegal to step on money. Divorce is illegal in the Vatican. A Chinese law makes it compulsory for children to visit their parents and attend to their spiritual needs. The long list would make us preen with the pride of rationality. But wait, it is a humbling thought that in this country any sale of property above Rs 100 should be registered.

One way to make the lawmakers look periodically at the stack of rule books is to implant a terminator clause in each legislation. It should lapse after, say a quarter century, unless they are amended and updated. The courts should also ignore such laws. Some countries have such a clause in their laws, but India has not incorporated that principle, and thus allowed forensic weeds to grow.

The government must also go through the reports of the Law Commissions and the judgments of the Supreme Court. The commissions have made valuable suggestions on various subjects, but their recommendations have largely been ignored by the lawmakers.

The Supreme Court has also pointed out several flaws in obsolete laws that make them unworkable, especially in labour and commercial matters. The government, which is the largest litigant, is impervious to the damage they cause to the economy. The legal profession is delighted to keep such rewarding junk in their litigious armoury. Previous governments have ignored their duty to winnow out obsolete laws, though it could be easily done. Dumping such laws must definitely be easier than making them. The new stakeholders must pluck this low-hanging legislative fruit and take credit for the job, before its own adrenaline level drops with the passage of time.

Image: Gay rights activists hold placards during a protest against a verdict by the Supreme Court in New Delhi. The Supreme Court reinstated a ban on gay sex in India following a four-year period of decriminalisation. Several activists say Section 377 is dated, archaic and should be repealed to ensure equality among all human beings. Photograph: Adnan Abidi/Reuters

M J Antony