Cleaning up: on reviewing laws in India

A permanent mechanism is needed to review laws and weed out the obsolete ones

December 21, 2017 12:20 am | Updated 12:20 am IST

If law-making is a long and tedious process, it appears that unmaking existing laws is an equally arduous task. How else does one explain the fact that until three years ago, a huge number of obsolete Acts remained in the law books despite losing their relevance and utility? It has been only in the last three years that nearly 1,800 obsolete laws have been repealed. In the latest round, 235 outdated Acts and nine pre-Independence Ordinances have been repealed. These pieces of legislation may have been relevant and necessary at the time they were introduced, but in the absence of a periodic review they continue to burden the statutory corpus. These laws are archaic mainly because the social, economic and legal conditions that required their enactment does not obtain today; they are also not in tune with the progress of democracy since Independence. Among the Acts repealed are the Prevention of Seditious Meetings Act , 1911, the Bengal Suppression of Terrorist Outrages (Supplementary) Act, 1932, and the Preventive Detention Act, 1950. The country still has a body of ‘anti-terror’ legislation as well as preventive detention laws. Although such laws remain in the statute books, these particular enactments are redundant. Other questionable legal provisions, for example, those on ‘sedition’ or exciting disaffection against the state, remain; so do ‘adultery’ and ‘sex against the order of nature’. Such obsolete concepts and notions that underlie law-making also require an overhaul.

In a 2014 interim report, the first of four such reports on obsolete laws, the Law Commission noted that the panel had been identifying Acts for repeal in many of its reports in the past. Its 96th and 148th Reports recommended a good number of such laws. In 1998, the P.C. Jain Commission recommended the withdrawal of a large body of legislation, and also noted that as many as 253 Acts identified earlier for withdrawal still remained on the statute book. Nine ordinances issued by the Governor-General between 1941 and 1946, covering subjects such as war injuries, war gratuities and collective fines, are being removed from the statute book only now. It is odd, even amusing, that the Howrah Offences Act, 1857, the Hackney-Carriage Act, 1879, and the Dramatic Performances Act, 1876, have been in force well into the current century. The problem with not removing archaic laws is that they could be invoked suddenly against unsuspecting and otherwise law-abiding citizens. It is a welcome sign for good governance that the present government is updating and trimming the statute book. Given that legislation is quite a prolific activity, especially in the State Assemblies, it would be advisable to have a permanent commission to review the existing body of law and identify those that require repeal as often as possible.

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