The UPA government has done the right thing in responding to public pressure for reforming the criminal justice system. Following amendments to the CrPC last year giving relief to undertrials, the Union Cabinet is now considering according victims and their families the right to appeal verdicts, as well as offering protection to witnesses. While many of these steps were being contemplated by the Law Ministry for some time now, there is no doubt that the public outrage over the flawed verdicts in the Jessica Lall and Priyadarshini Mattoo cases has played the role of catalyst.
Investigation and prosecution agencies form the backbone of the criminal justice process, since their efficiency and honesty singularly determine a trial’s outcome. In the Jessica Lall and Mattoo cases, they failed the victims. As such, the Cabinet’s proposal to give aggrieved persons the right to appeal to higher courts is a healthy corrective that will keep a check on State agencies. The compact between State and society dictates that prosecution in criminal cases is a State duty, since the crime is deemed to be committed against society. But State agencies have, time and again, failed to live up to people’s faith. Since the CrPC already provides protection against obstruction of justice by the prosecution by allowing the aggrieved person the right for his advocate to take over the prosecution, there is no reason why his hands should be tied when it comes to appealing to a higher court. The Cabinet must also consider recommendations made in the Law Commission’s 154th report (1996) to set up a specialised investigating agency. More coordination between them and the prosecution, even during the investigation process, would also be beneficial to both. Witness statements must mandatorily be recorded on oath before a magistrate. It defies logic that statements recorded during investigation does not constitute evidence in a trial court, leaving the field wide open for witnesses to turn hostile.
All these proposals already form recommendations of past Law Commissions. The government must implement them quickly since, in most cases, this means modifying laws and regulations and putting personnel and facilities in place to ensure an impartial justice delivery system.