Thursday, August 9, 2018

Delhi HC Decriminalises Begging - An Outlier or the Start of Nationwide Reform?

Within the first decade of India becoming a constitutional republic, the erstwhile State of Bombay passed the Bombay Prevention of Begging Act, 1959 ["anti-begging law"]. This was extended to the national capital in 1960 and has been operational since 1961. Nineteen other states and another Union Territory followed suit, either with their own versions of the law or by extending the Bombay Act as well. Yesterday, a Division Bench of the Delhi High Court decided a 2009 writ petition challenging the constitutionality of several parts of the anti-begging law [Harsh Mander & Anr. v. UOI & Ors., W.P. 10498/2009 decided on August 8, 2018. Hereafter, "Harsh Mander"]. Central to the petition was a challenge to several provisions of the law which criminalised begging. On her last day in office as Acting Chief Justice of the Delhi High Court, Justice Gita Mittal delivered a judgment holding that these 25 provisions criminalising begging were indeed, unconstitutional. 

The Crime of Begging and its Punishment
Before going forward, let's take note of what was being criminalised. Begging. The statute defined it as "having no means of subsistence and wandering about or remaining in any public place in such condition or manner as it makes likely that the person doing so exists by soliciting or receiving alms." It also defined it as "soliciting or receiving alms in a public place, whether or not under any pretence such as singing, dancing, fortune-telling, performance or offering any article for sale." [Section 2] What happened to those found begging? They were to be taken off the streets and the law required they be sent to detention centres. Section 6 of the Bombay Act declared that persons found begging for the first time be detained for at least one year in a Certified Institution, which could extend to three years. Second-time offenders faced a mandatory detention period of ten years, with a possible prison sentence. 

The state saw the main problem being addressed through the law as one of organised crime - rackets being run by rich people who forced people to beg for a living. The anti-begging laws were driven by a deterrence logic to put an end to these rackets. But, a look at the definition makes it apparent that it covered a very wide category of persons. It did not even need any specific act to invite criminality; dire poverty that was visible and witnessed in public places was enough. Thus, people were made criminals not because of what they did, but for showing the rest of us who they were. No matter: this is where the rehabilitative logic of the anti-begging law came in. Those who were deprived and forced to beg would be helped by the Certified Institutions. These Institutions were not prisons, but places offering vocational training to help make persons capable of providing for themselves without begging.

As with most laws, the main problems with the anti-begging law came in enforcement. The state did not attempt any systematic approach at solving the problem. Instead, the law became a convenient tool at the hands of law enforcement to clean up city spaces of people who "looked" poor, as had recently happened in Delhi before the Commonwealth Games in 2010. The people most often caught and brought before courts were rarely part of criminal gangs, but people forced to beg out of extreme poverty and lack of employment opportunities. Courts justifiably refused to institutionalise them by exercising pardon powers conferred by the statute [Section 5]. The Certified Institutions themselves had come to be mired in controversy over time. Social activists and researchers complained that detention centres were no better than prisons and had no functional vocational training facilities. The state disagreed, and instead complained that courts did not send convicted beggars to Certified Institutions to facilitate rehabilitation. Ultimately, in 50 years of being on the statute books in Delhi, neither the deterrent nor rehabilitative potential of anti-begging laws had been realised.

The Constitutional Case
The Delhi High Court decision of 2018 was not the first serious discussion on anti-begging laws in India. In an earlier paper, Usha Ramanathan documents significant parts of the advocacy against such legislation. She notes that Delhi was the site of serious debates on the validity and usefulness of this law in the 1980s, based on pioneering work done by a team at the Law Faculty of Delhi University. The team studied the operation of anti-begging laws to point out various problems in enforcement, arguing that it was doing much to harm rather than help the poor. Subsequently, a writ petition was filed in the Bombay High Court in 1992, challenging the constitutionality of the anti-begging law. A Committee was setup in pursuance of that petition, which conducted studied the law to recommend it be radically re-shaped, as those forced to beg "ought not to be treated as offenders of the law. They need a healing touch of the protective law, not the deterrence of criminal sanction."

In Delhi itself, in 2006 a single judge of the High Court mused about constitutional arguments while deciding a revision petition in Ram Lakhan [137 (2007) DLT 173]. Justice B.D. Ahmed came down heavily against the order of the lower court challenged before him where the Metropolitan Magistrate had described the beggar as "raising his front paws" rather than hands. Justice Ahmed also tempered the force of the anti-begging law but could not rule on its constitutionality in revision proceedings. This did not stop him from discussing the topic, though, and he noted how criminalisation of begging seemed contrary to the right to freedom of speech and expression guaranteed under Article 19(1), as well as a clear violation of the right to life safeguarded by Article 21. 

The Division Bench decision in Harsh Mander v UOI builds on these cues. It held the provisions criminalising begging contrary to Article 14 and Article 21 of the Constitution. It notes that failure to distinguish between voluntary and involuntary begging renders the classification arbitrary, the wide definition of begging made the law over-inclusive in scope, all of which made the provisions "manifestly arbitrary" and contrary to Article 14 [Paragraphs 14-19]. The Court then moves on to Article 21: detention of persons to "ascertain the cause of poverty" is held contrary to Article 21 [Paragraph 20]. This is followed by a long exposition of the "contours" of that right [Paragraphs 21-26], possibly to make the claim that as the state is responsible for alleviating poverty, criminalising it is not the right answer [Paragraphs 27-31]. Finally, it reiterates that legislation penalising persons "compelled" to beg is in the "teeth of Article 21" [Paragraph 33]. The Court also claimed another reason for reading down these provisions - the wastage of public funds as Certified Institutions were lying unused [Paragraph 39]. 

Notably, in striking down the several portions of the anti-begging law, the High Court faced no real opposition from the government - both the erstwhile Congress regime and the current Aam Aadmi Party government agreed that the law was outdated and could go. Perhaps this is responsible for the paltry reasoning on display in the judgment which could have just been a consent decree. I highlight two problems. First, the decision does not discuss Article 19(1) claim even though it was made before the Court. In doing so, does the Court indirectly support the idea of begging itself not being protected speech? By refusing to discuss the argument altogether, we are left to wonder. Second, there is much to be considered on the aspect imposing constitutional limits on criminalisation of conduct per se, as the Supreme Court had been considering recently in petitions challenging the validity of Sections 377 and 497 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860. As was discussed in context of the adultery hearings, the legal challenge can be solely based on arbitrary classifications, or can be about whether the underlying conduct should be criminal, and courts must be clear in how they treat these separate issues. The High Court does not provide this clarity, and its lack of analysis is even more problematic in light of the remarks made by the Court at the end, where it stated that a well-crafted legislation criminalising "specific types of forced beggary" and for curbing the "racket of forced begging" might survive constitutional scrutiny [Paragraphs 36, 46]. 

Compare this decision in Harsh Mander to the 2009 decision in Naz Foundation, where contested claims helped the Delhi High Court to fully explore various arguments, in a decision which continues to be celebrated for its visionary approach. Perhaps because there was no real contest at the bar, and the speed at which the verdict came (judgment reserved on August 7 and delivered on August 8), the decision in Harsh Mander does not scale the heights of Naz Foundation, and I highlighted how the High Court failed to fully discuss the legal issues at the heart of the case. Even so, the decision in Harsh Mander does share the truly awesome transformative potential that Naz Foundation also had. Since criminalisation of begging is done in 20 states, and the underlying legal provisions are either identical or nearly-identical to all of them, the Delhi High Court's decision in Harsh Mander is poised to either stand out like a sore thumb, or spark nationwide reform. I sincerely hope it is the second.

[updated on August 8, 2018 at 13:30 to add the reference to the earlier adultery post and mention the speed at which the decision in Harsh Mander came]

Sunday, August 5, 2018

Adultery Goes to the Supreme Court, Again

(This post first appeared on the Indian Constitutional Law and Philosophy Blog)

The Supreme Court of India is currently hearing a petition filed by Joseph Shine questioning whether the offence of "adultery", defined and punished under Section 497 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860 [IPC], and associated procedural rules under Section 198(2) of the Criminal Procedure Code 1973 [Cr.P.C.], are constitutional. The hearings are in full swing, and recent media coverage suggests that the Court is keen on definitely doing something, unlike the previous occasions when the offence was challenged and its validity upheld. The question then is, what might the Court do? This post draws on an article I published some time ago discussing the legality of adultery laws and poses the choices before the Court, discussing the potential pros and cons of going down any of those paths. But first, a quick recap on the law itself.

The Law on Adultery
Section 497 IPC says: 

Whoever has sexual intercourse with a person who is and whom he knows or has reason to believe to be the wife of another man, without the consent or connivance of that man, such sexual intercourse not amounting to the offence of rape, is guilty of the offence of adultery, and shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to five years, or with fine, or with both. In such case the wife shall not be punishable as an abettor.

It criminalises marital infidelity, but not all kinds. The criminal kind needs sexual relations between a person (commonly a man) and the wife of another man, without his consent or connivance. It is not a crime if you cheat on your spouse with an unmarried woman. Further, if you do cheat on your spouse with a married woman, that wife is deemed to be a victim whatever the circumstances. This separate treatment goes further and becomes more problematic when we consider the special procedural rules installed for registering adultery cases. 

Indian criminal law follows a principle that anyone can start the criminal law machinery. This rule has exceptions, found in Sections 190-199 of the Criminal Procedure Code, 1973 [Cr.P.C.] (in respect of IPC offences). Section 198 Cr.P.C. creates an exception by restricting persons who can start cases about "Offences against Marriage", that are defined and punished in Chapter 20 of the IPC. Perhaps respecting the private nature of the underlying conduct, Section 198(1) needs complaints by persons aggrieved by the offence to start cases. It goes on to then tell us who the law considers as aggrieved, and Section 198(2) says:

For the purposes of sub- section (1), no person other than the husband of the woman shall be deemed to be aggrieved by any offence punishable under section 497 or section 498 of the [IPC]: Provided that in the absence of the husband, some person who had care of the woman on his behalf at the time when such offence was committed may, with the leave of the Court, make a complaint on his behalf.

The wife is deemed to be the victim of adultery in Section 497 IPC. But she isn't aggrieved by the offence to be able to trigger the legal machinery. That aggrieved person will be her husband, and if he isn't around, his nominee. That is the strange reality of the law on adultery: a victim isn't aggrieved to exercise her right of launching private prosecution. It is a reality that has survived judicial scrutiny on three prior occasions, but is now again in the spotlight, perhaps for the last time.

The Different Ways of Framing the Problem
Having seen what the law on adultery says, it's time to turn to what are the problems it seemingly poses. There are different ways to frame this problem, and broadly one could frame the question thus:

  • Type I: Is Section 497 IPC illegal because adultery shouldn't be a crime at all? 
  • Type II: Are Section 497 IPC and Section 198(2) Cr.P.C. illegal because they perpetuate unconstitutional gender-based discrimination? 
  • Type III: Is Section 497 IPC illegal because it differentiates within adulterous relationships without any rational basis for that classification? 

Historically, the Supreme Court has dealt with the adultery laws on three different occasions. None of these involved a broad Type I Challenge. Instead, the Court has mostly faced Type II Challenges. In Yusuf Abdul Aziz [1954 SCR 930], the petitioner argued that Section 497 IPC was unconstitutional because it unfairly discriminated between men and women - exempting women from punishment. In Sowmithri Vishnu [(1985) Suppl. SCC 137], the petitioner argued that both Section 497 IPC and Section 198(2) Cr.P.C. were bad for unfairly discriminating on the basis of sex. There was a Type III challenge too, where the petitioner argued that Section 497 IPC didn't have any basis to only punish one kind of adulterous relationship. In V. Revathi [AIR 1988 SC 835], again only a Type II Challenge was made as the petitioner argued that Section 198(2) Cr.P.C. was unconstitutional for unlawfully discriminating against women by not considering them "aggrieved" to trigger the legal process.           
Why? Why did nobody make it their primary claim that the Supreme Court should Section 497 and Section 198(2) down because adultery should not be a crime? It was because, at some fundamental level, all these petitioners and their counsel accepted that the Supreme Court is not the place to make these arguments. It is not the Court's business to decide whether or not certain conduct should be a crime. The decision to criminalise is ultimately a reflection of what conduct the society considers bad enough for it to warrant censure and sanctions. Since society elected a legislature to reflect these, and other choices, the decision to criminalise is traditionally identified as a legislative choice. Parliament decides whether the conduct should be criminalised. When it expresses that will through a statute, the courts are bound to examine the validity of that legislative measure against the minimum barometers set out by the Constitution. 

Thus, the previous challenges to the adultery provisions were reflective of this traditional approach: petitioners approached the Court to argue that the manner in which conduct had been criminalised did not pass constitutional muster. The present petition in Joseph Shine is also framed as a traditional Type II Challenge. It argued that the adultery laws perpetuate unconstitutional discrimination, seeking a review of the previous cases where the Court had held otherwise. The Supreme Court issued notice last year and agreed to go down this path primarily because it had a problem with the provisions not being gender neutral (discussed by Dr. Tarunabh Khaitan on ICLP recently, and by Gautam Bhatia last year). But, going by news coverage, the Supreme Court now seems to be mulling about whether it wants to engage in a Type I Challenge instead and consider why adultery should be a crime at all. Notice the assumption underlying the question itself: there is a kind of conduct which a legislature cannot make a crime, and the Court can identify this category.  

While adultery cases did not involve Type I Challenges, such Challenges to penal statutes themselves are not totally absent from the history of Indian constitutional law. In fact, a number of cases were filed in the 1950s against new social welfare legislation which used criminal punishments against those violating licensing laws, arguing that such conduct could not be a crime. The Court agreed that a category of conduct beyond the scope of criminalisation does exist, and it located this within the Constitution itself in Article 19 rights to freedom read together with its many restrictions. Thus, in Harishankar Bagla [1955 SCR 313], the petitioner unsuccessfully argued that licensing laws on cotton were unconstitutional as they violated the rights guaranteed under Article 19(1)(g) and (f). Beyond Article 19, what else might be identified in the category of conduct that can't be penalised? The intuitive answer is the "right to life and personal liberty" guarantee under Article 21. While the Maneka Gandhi reading of Article 21 only did this indirectly by requiring laws to be "just, fair, and reasonable", the recent recognition of a right to privacy within Article 21 surely works as a basis to make Type I Challenges.     

The Implications of a Narrow or Broach Approach
A Type II Challenge in Joseph Shine would mean considering whether or not the statutes perpetuate illegal discrimination. This would involve testing the law on the basis of Article 14, and also the Maneka Gandhi version of Article 21 to see whether the adultery laws are "just, fair, and reasonable". But if the Court sticks to its guns and makes the adultery petition a Type I Challenge, then it must do more. It must decide whether consensual sexual relationships between adults can be criminalised, even if they involve marital infidelity. It cannot answer this question by testing the mechanics of the statute under Article 14, but will have to make a substantive inquiry, turning to Article 19(1)(a) or perhaps the right to privacy under Article 21, and the reasonable restrictions to these rights. Thus, the Court would have to decide whether criminalising adultery to protect the "sanctity of marriage" as the Central Government seems to argue, is a purpose falling within the "decency of morality" clause of Article 19(2). Similarly, it would have to engage with Puttuswamy and the separate opinions therein to establish how it will test the state intervention into this sphere of conduct. The statutory provisions on adultery can arguably be found constitutionally wanting in both scenarios. So what should the Court do in this situation? Play it safe and stick to a traditional approach based on the equality clause, or enter the substantive debate on criminalisation. There are pros and cons to both options. 

If the Court decides to play it safe, then it can set the record straight on the previous cases. Moreover, it can avoid a debate about what the Court thinks is conduct worthy of criminal sanctions; an expression of societal mores traditionally expressed through elected representatives. But since there are constitutionally protected spheres of conduct, the Court can't fully avoid that question. If it does, then, decide to go ahead and address the substantive issue fully, it can lead to a Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court clearly identifying a set of basic principles that legislatures must adhere to while drafting criminal statutes, and locate these principles within the constitutional text. For instance, if the Court holds consensual sexual relations between adults are beyond the pale of criminal law, it can do so by locating this conduct within the scope of Article 19(1)(a) [right to freedom of speech and expression], or Article 21. Arriving at these basic constitutional minimums would potentially affect many other offences which involve similar conduct, as litigants get emboldened to file petitions. For instance, the principle would extend to excluding this entire category of conduct from the realm of Section 377 IPC, the provision currently criminalising "unnatural sex", even if it might be consensual and between adults. Ultimately, in the long run, the Court can trigger a fruitful late-spring cleaning of the Augean Stables that are the variety of crimes punishable under many statutes across India. 

But there is another side to that coin: the Court will now invite litigation challenging the legality of substantive crimes and further trample upon traditionally legislative functions. Already, the Court has broadened its jurisdiction to assume plenipotentiary powers and don the role of the White Knight in this horribly corrupt India. As Anuj Bhuwania argues, the Court has increasingly become inscrutable in carrying out this role, rendering poorly reasoned judgments or not rendering judgments at all or governing by a stream of non-reasoned orders, to slowly become part of the problem itself. This recent history suggests that opening up the gates for litigation will only lead to more chaos. And there is more basis for worry in this particular sphere of judicial review of substantive criminal law issues. The last major opportunity the Court had to engage in this kind of analysis was when it was asked to decide the constitutionality of the defamation offence, but it failed to address core legal issues and hid behind a veil of prose, rendering that decision only fitfully useful in future cases. The consequences of judicial intervention in Joseph Shine - regardless of the verdict - are not going to be so unremarkable given its status as a Constitution Bench decision.  

Recently, my friend and fellow skeptic Gautam Bhatia in an op-ed laid out a rival approach to the "narrow approach" where the Court sticks to the legal issue to avoid the "real" ones. This is what he called the "transformative approach", where the Court is fearless enough to "erase and remedy long-standing legacies of injustice". I have reservations in how Bhatia imagines the Court should go about this task, but Bhatia is right in his underlying premise, that if the Court has already broken down the barriers in terms of traditional power-relations between the different branches of government in India, it might as well do something useful. What holds me back from cheering him on is that there is too much to show that the manner in which the Court carries out its core function of answering legal issues - if it still is the core function - makes a transformative approach a double-edged sword. By inviting the Court to widen its range of targets, litigants run a risk that the Court is not going to stick to the identified targets. It will pick and choose which ones it wants to address, how to address them, and whether it wants to bring in new targets which you only find out while reading the judgment. Thus, at heart I yearn for more principled criminalisation of conduct in India, something that the Constitution Bench decision in Joseph Shine can help realise. But history often repeats itself, and that history tells me that the kind of reasoned decision needed to help realise this objective is unlikely to emerge. As I was reminded seeing the recent England-India test match: it is the hope that kills you.  

Thursday, August 2, 2018

No Swords, But an Absolute Shield: India’s Overbroad Judicial Immunity Against Corruption Prosecutions

(This post first appeared on the Global Anticorruption Blog

Over the past four decades, India’s “activist” higher judiciary (the state High Courts and the federal Supreme Court) has significantly altered the balance of power between branches of government. This has been done by liberalising the rules on who can petition the court for relief, as well as expanding the scope of the judicial relief that can be provided. Today it is entirely normal for the Court to take up the task of monitoring the execution of government policies as well as the progress of criminal investigations. But this expansion of judicial power has not been matched by a coequal expansion of oversight mechanisms to ensure that judicial power is not abused—a significant problem given the serious corruption problem in India’s courts (see also here). Certain problems with the court system have attracted the attention of both commentators and the Parliament, including the Chief Justice’s unfettered power to assign cases to different judges and the system for appointments and impeachment. Surprisingly, far less attention has been paid to another instance of no oversight over the judicial branch: the doctrine of judicial immunity. 

Across countries, judicial officers are conferred broad judicial immunity to allow courts to fearlessly perform their functions. Significantly though, in most countries this protection applies only to acts in furtherance of the “judicial function”; for acts outside that scope, judges are subject to the law just like ordinary citizens. Not so in India. In 1991, the Indian Supreme Court created a rule that no criminal investigation whatsoever could begin against a member of the higher judiciary without first “consulting” the Chief Justice of India (or, if allegations are against the Chief Justice, consulting with any other Supreme Court Justice). According to the Court, this rule was needed to protect judges from “frivolous prosecution and unnecessary harassment.” 

Such a broad judicial immunity rule makes no sense, either generally or in the Indian context. While it’s reasonable to prevent a judge from being prosecuted for how she decided a case, it makes no sense to protect her for having murdered somebody, or taking a bribe. Indeed, in addition to its other obvious problems, this broad judicial immunity rule creates serious difficulties for efforts to fight endemic judicial corruption in India. 

Most straightforwardly, the “consultation” requirement delays proper investigation of corrupt judicial officers, and may sometimes block investigations altogether. The most recent example came in December 2017, when the Chief Justice denied permission to investigate a judge of the Allahabad High Court for corruption, though the Chief Justice found the material sufficient to recommend the judge’s removal. By shielding officials in this fashion, the system engenders corruption by fostering a lack of transparency and accountability. Even if one accepts that investigative agencies can be manipulated to bring about frivolous cases in India, the law already protects public servants—including judges—from prosecutions for their official acts by imposing a need for administrative consent. The additional judicial immunity protections only burden the investigative process

In other contexts, the Indian Supreme Court has sharply criticised legal provisions that require consent of a higher official before proceeding with a prosecution, given the tendency of such a system to delay or derail corruption prosecutions. Yet the Court refused to recognise the potential for similar abuses in its own case. It’s also telling—and troubling—that India’s special judicial immunity rule applies only to higher court judges, not to trial court judges. One struggles to find a reason behind this limitation except for the status that the higher judiciary occupies. Again, the Court’s doublespeak while dealing with other branches of government and itself is striking: In 2014 the Court did not hesitate to nullify similar protections for senior bureaucrats, finding that a similar status-based classification was arbitrary. But when a petition concerning the judicial immunity came up last November, it was re-affirmed by the Court

The 1991 rule should be eliminated. Even if a complete rescission of the rule does not come to pass, at the very least some exclusions to the blanket rule are urgently needed. For instance, judicial immunity should not apply in cases where a judge is charged with taking bribes for exerting influence outside beyond her judicial role. India should take firm steps to remind its citizens and the world that merely donning the robe does not automatically render any individual above scrutiny. 

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Update: Delhi High Court Decision on Section 82 and Proclaimed Offenders

A couple of years ago, this Blog discussed the legal position on Section 82(4) Cr.P.C. and the legal issue of how do we interpret the term "proclaimed offenders" used therein. The earlier post described the problem thus: 

Section 82(4) was inserted in 2006 to state that failure to appear after a proclamation entitles a court to pronounce the person a "Proclaimed Offender" and make a declaration to that effect. Importantly though, 82(4) is limited to proclamations in respect of persons accused of offences punishable under Sections 302, 304, 364, 382, 392, 393, 394, 395, 396, 397, 398, 399, 400, 402, 436, 449, 459 or 460 of the Indian Penal Code. The consequences of a proclamation are twofold. One, a proclamation triggers Section 83 Cr.P.C., enabling a court to attach any property belonging to the proclaimed person which may be sold upon continued absence. Two, Section 174-A of the IPC (also inserted in 2006 by the same amending statute) makes it an offence to not appear following proclamations under Section 82 Cr.P.C. In 174-A IPC a distinction was made: disobeying a Section 82(1) proclamation was punishable with imprisonment upto 3 years or fine or both, but where a declaration under Section 82(4) was made a person could be punished with imprisonment upto 7 years with a mandatory fine. 
... Section 82 today creates two separate classes of proclamations: those for persons accused of offences specified under Section 82(4), and all other proclamations. This is supplemented by Section 174-A IPC, which reiterates that a higher punishment may be inflicted upon those declared Proclaimed Offenders under 82(4). There is no such declaration for disobeying the other proclamations issued under Section 82(1), which brings us to the issue at hand. Can persons other than those accused of offences listed under Section 82(4) be declared Proclaimed Offenders?

Further, the post mentioned how the Punjab and Haryana High Court had considered the issue in a 2012 decision titled Deeksha Puri v. State of Haryana, where it concluded that persons other than those mentioned under Section 82(4) were also proclaimed offenders. In the 2016 post, it was argued that this conclusion was incorrect, not least because of it being completely unsupported by the text.

Yesterday, i.e. on July 31, 2018, a Single Judge Bench of the Delhi High Court in Sanjay Bhandari v. State [Crl Revision Petition No. 223 of 2018] specifically disagreed with the Punjab and Haryana High Court, and concluded that "Proclaimed Offender" is a term of art, that can only be used in respect of the categories of offences covered by Section 82(4), Cr.P.C. Persons who disobey proclamation notices in cases involving other offences are "Proclaimed Persons". For such persons, law enforcement cannot resort to the aggravated punishment clauses of Section 174-A of the Indian Penal Code. As an aside, the other question posed in the earlier blog post - why is this list of offences used in Section 82(4) - remains unanswered. The Delhi High Court in Sanjay Bhandari only engages with that list of offences to assert that it contains "serious offences" [Para 14], without telling us why these serious offences are part of the list, which excludes Section 376 IPC that punishes rape.

With this conflict between different High Courts, will the matter reach the Supreme Court, or can the Parliament be suggested (wisely) to intervene and clarify the text? 

Sunday, July 29, 2018

Amendments to the Prevention of Corruption Act: Attachment and Forfeiture

The 2018 amendments to the Prevention of Corruption Act [PC Act] promise to bring major changes to how corruption offences will be prosecuted in India. The previous posts discussed the creation of a new offence under Section 8 for giving bribes, reforms to corporate liability under the PC through a new Section 9, and major changes to how the regime prosecutes public servants. In this post, I take up the insertion of a new chapter to the PC Act, which will make it possible for law enforcement to target the unlawful gains allegedly made from corrupt conduct. Since this is the last post in this stock-taking exercise, some general observations follow the more specific discussion.

Attachment and Forfeiture: The Text and the 1944 Ordinance
The 2018 amendments have added Chapter IV-A to the PC Act titled "Attachment and Forfeiture of Property". The idea being that persons should not be allowed to profit from corrupt acts, making it necessary for law enforcement to have powers to recover all the tainted assets one procured through PC Act offences. The new Chapter IV-A contains only one provision, Section 18-A, which says:

Section 18-A.(1) Save as otherwise provided under the Prevention of Money Laundering Act, 2002, the provisions of the Criminal Law Amendment Ordinance, 1944 shall, as far as may be, apply to the attachment, administration of attached property and execution of order of attachment or confiscation of money or property procured by means of an offence under this Act. 
(2) For purposes of this Act, the provisions of the Criminal Law Amendment Ordinance, 1944 shall have effect, subject to the modification that the references to "District Judge" shall be construed as references to "Special Judge".

As this straightforward provision suggests, all that Section 18-A does is to apply the Criminal Law Amendment Ordinance, 1944 [1944 Ordinance] to "attachment, administration of attached property and execution of order of attachment or confiscation of money or property" which is the result of PC Act offences. So the procedure under the 1944 Ordinance will be used to govern how the government goes after fruits of corrupt acts. What is this 1944 Ordinance? It was part of a wave of anticorruption measures introduced by an irked British Raj at a time when black-marketing and petty corruption were rife during the times of World War II. It mainly sought to recover money / property that persons gained by cheating Her Majesty's government or misappropriating such property. These were not the only kinds of criminal conduct imagined, and a Schedule to the 1944 Ordinance states the offences to which the procedure applies. Since existing criminal procedures did not clearly envisage this kind of action, the colonial regime fashioned a new process to allow for this recovery. Due to some judicial gymnastics by the Indian Supreme Court [discussed previously on this Blog], a colonial Ordinance (not statute) remains valid in independent India and for several years was the main legal basis for any attempts by the Indian government to seize criminal gains.

The broad outlines of that process are as follows. The process is triggered by law enforcement filing an application, which can be filed even before any criminal case is filed in court [Section 3, 1944 Ordinance]. This is filed before a "District Judge", who has powers to attach the allegedly tainted assets, or an amount equal to the criminal gains made, in the manner prescribed under the Civil Procedure Code 1908 [Section 3, 1944 Ordinance]. The attachment order can be made without hearing the accused if the District Judge is convinced there is some merit in the allegations [Section 4, 1944 Ordinance]. But for such an interim order to be made absolute, a chance to be heard must be given, not only to the accused but to other persons interested in the property too [Section 5, 1944 Ordinance]. If the District Judge is convinced that the application was bogus, she can revoke the order, but if she doesn't then the order will continue to run [Section 5, 1944 Ordinance]. For attachment - a temporary arrangement - to result in transfer of property / money, a criminal case must be filed and end in a conviction [Sections 10 and 13, 1944 Ordinance].               

The Problems with Chapter IV-A
Should persons convicted of corruption be permitted to benefit from their corruptly obtained gains? Arguably not. But, that is only the start of the matter. In this part, I argue that Chapter IV-A is hardly free of problems. The procedure applies to money or property procured by means of an offence. But procured is not defined anywhere. How would it work for public servants? Would "procure" target only the immediate gains made by the corrupt public servant in the form of bribes, or could it apply to the offence of being found in possession of assets disproportionate to your salary? And what about private persons. If the government alleges I bribed my way to get a government license, would this provision enable a seizure of my entire business built on that basis? The choice of having "procure" in Section 18-A stems from the fact that it is part of the language under the 1944 Ordinance. Which brings me to the other, broader aspects of problems with Chapter IV-A. The first of these is a problem of sheer redundancy. As mentioned above, the 1944 Ordinance has a Schedule which details the different offences to which this procedure applies. Item 4-A of that Schedule states that the Ordinance already applied to cases under the PC Act. So what was the need for Section 18-A in the 2018 amendments? Frankly, I haven't the faintest idea. There is then the issue of perpetuating the 1944 Ordinance itself: a procedure that is, in fact, the subject of pending legal challenges before the Supreme Court. I find it difficult to accept that India's Parliament still cannot come up with a new statutory process on the subject and is forced to retain a colonial era ordinance, passed during an emergency, based on arguably tenuous judicial reasoning? 

What makes the decision to retain the 1944 Ordinance for PC Act cases all the more puzzling is the proliferation of attachment and forfeiture provisions across recent statutes. Successive governments have become more enchanted with having these powers to enforce laws. Today, similar provisions are part of the Narcotics, Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act 1985, Prevention of Money Laundering Act 2002, Benami Transactions (Prohibition) Act 1988 (since 2016), Lokpal and Lokayuktas Act 2014, and most recently the Fugitive Economic Offenders Ordinance 2018. Multiplication of such laws means each statute creates a new authority that will hear such cases before which the concerned law enforcement agency must file a claim. This only adds to the confusion, since it is common for a criminal transaction to be prosecuted under different statutes. Why not streamline the entire process and let one authority blossom from that muck, to consider all cases where the government seeks attachment and forfeiture of allegedly criminal gains? Not only does it help reduce government expenditure in creating and staffing more tribunals and bodies, but it will also help reduce potential conflicts of jurisdiction, and of conflicting legal interpretations coming about. Of course, a single authority will make life a lot easier for the accused persons as well.

Conclusions and Summing Up: New Act, Old Problems
These four posts have managed to take stock of the various key features of the 2018 amendments to the PC Act. What does one make of the changes which will soon become law? Media outlets have broadly been discussing whether or not the bribe-giving offence makes sense, and whether the PC Act now stands diluted in respect of cases against public servants. I think those questions have been answered to some degree through the posts. The bribe-giving offence makes sense, but the benevolent exceptions carry far too many loopholes to be effectively implemented without judicial support. The provisions of the PC Act have certainly been diluted - supposedly to protect honest officers - and this dilution is not as serious if we look at the offences, but more so when we look at the new provisions on getting prior sanctions. In addition to these issues, I also discussed the new regime on corporate criminal liability, which I am surprised has not been the subject of greater attention in the media yet.

But all this is what the new statutory regime is going to be on paper. None of which redresses what is a bigger set of problems with anticorruption measures in India: shoddy enforcement. I have talked about this before on this Blog and I apologise for being repetitive, but at the end of the day all these changes will end up as little more than political brownie points unless serious consideration is given on improving enforcement of the law. Can we really expect major changes to the scene if India's main anticorruption agencies - the CBI and the ED - remain subservient to vested political interests? Can we imagine the government winning cases in court if prosecutors have minimal resources, are poorly paid, grossly overworked, and rarely continue with a case from start to finish? Bringing about those changes requires more than printing new copies of statutes. It requires considerable political effort to generate consensus and then invest serious resources in reforming the legal process. But this is effort that no government is willing to bear as it does not translate into guaranteed political gains. If the new PC Act regime continues to operate without any changes on that structural level, the new legislation will continue to be plagued by some very old problems.