Pragmatic | The burden of too many laws

“The more laws, the less justice.”

In the wake of the recent bomb blasts in Mumbai, an interesting point has come up which needs careful attention.

He also stressed the need for setting priorities for the police. He said the basic function of the police was to protect life and property, but there were other things that kept them busy. On police officials being more concerned about moral policing than maintaining law and order, he said that once a law had been enacted, it was the duty of the police to enforce it.[Indian Express]

It is not merely the laws that have been enacted, or are being proposed everyday by the likes of the NAC and Team Anna but also the laws that have existed for centuries and have not been repealed. The Commission on Review of Administrative Laws in a 1998 report had identified 1,300 outdated statutes. Of these, only 200 were repealed. Among these, Bibek Debroy tells us, that the two earliest (Bengal Indigo Contracts Act and Bengal Districts Act) are from 1836. In the vintage category, there are six from the 1830s, nine from the 1840s, 34 from the 1850s, 21 from the 1860s, 33 from the 1870s, 37 from the 1880s, 34 from the 1890s, 18 from the 1900s, 27 from the 1910s and 31 from the 1920s.

Most of these colonial-era laws are plain ridiculous. Here is an example.

Let’s assume you are a male, more than 14 and live in Delhi. Do you know the collector can requisition your services to destroy locusts and if you refuse, you can be fined Rs 50 or imprisoned for 10 days? You will know locusts have arrived because there will be a beating of drums. This is by virtue of the 1949 East Punjab Agricultural Pests, Diseases and Noxious Weeds Act, applicable to Delhi. A vintage car must have been built before 1930, so this isn’t a vintage statute.[India Today]

Another one here:

Under the rules of the Factories Act of 1948, there has to be earthen pots filled with drinking water. Water coolers won’t do. There has to be red-painted buckets filled with sand, in case there are fires. Fire extinguishers won’t do. Factories must be whitewashed. Distemper isn’t good enough.[Telegraph]

It isn’t that the government of India is not aware of the need to repeal obsolete laws. In 1958, the Law Commission examined all the British statutes then in force as applicable to India. The Law Commission then forwarded a comprehensive report in 1984 on the repeal of certain obsolete central laws. In 1993, the Law Commission again undertook the question of repeal of central laws passed before 15 August 1947. And the last such report from the Law Commission on Repeal and Amendment of Laws was issued in 1998.

Incidentally, the primary term of reference of the current Law Commission, which was established in 2009, still remains the Review/Repeal of obsolete laws:

  • To identify laws which are no longer needed or relevant and can be immediately repealed.
  • To identify laws which are in harmony with the existing climate of economic liberalization which need no change.
  • To identify laws which require changes or amendments and to make suggestions for their amendment.

But this Law Commission’s tenure ends in 2012 and it is highly unlikely that any progress will be made on that front in the one year remaining now.

Getting back to the original issue. India doesn’t have sufficient policemen and policewomen for its vast population. The quality of the existing police leaves a lot to be desired. Overburdening them with too many laws dilutes their focus from their primary duties. They end up doing too many things, and doing all of them badly. As Cicero said: “The more laws, the less justice.”

What is the way out?

One, a time-bound one-time public review of all existing laws must be undertaken by the government immediately. Laws which have not been invoked for last 10 years should automatically be deemed to have been repealed. Laws which haven’t seen any conviction for 20 years must also follow suit.

Two, there must be a serious cost-benefit exercise before any new law is proposed to be enacted. In fact, every new law must repeal one or more existing laws in the statute.

Three, there should be a sunset clause for all laws unless there is a need for continuation. Alternatively, the principle of desuetude, allowing lapse of non-enforceable or non-enforced legislation, even if not specifically repealed should be brought into play by the courts.

Yes, we need better police. And we need more police. But we need to unburden the police that we have right now. Let us start with rationalising and reducing the laws in our statute books please. Now.

P.S. – This doesn’t in any way dilute the pressing need for police reforms and judicial reforms in this country.

DISCLAIMER: This is an archived post from the Indian National Interest blogroll. Views expressed are those of the blogger's and do not represent The Takshashila Institution’s view.