Need: A genuinely independent justice system

ByMark Tully
Jan 15, 2022 08:49 PM IST

Recent events in Britain and India prove that both countries need a system of justice entirely independent of politicians and civil servants

New Year is a time to review the progress made on past projects and assess commitments made for the future. Earlier this week, I read about a letter that the Union home minister, Amit Shah, has written to chief justices, chief ministers and Members of Parliament involved in creating what he called a “people centric legal structure”. As part of that structure, Shah said the government is committed to ensuring speedy justice to all citizens. This is vital: 70% of the Indian prison population is on trial or waiting to be tried. To make matters worse, many die in Indian prisons either due to inadequate food, or lack of medical treatment, or both.

Many die in Indian prisons either due to inadequate food, or lack of medical treatment, or both. (HTPHoto) PREMIUM
Many die in Indian prisons either due to inadequate food, or lack of medical treatment, or both. (HTPHoto)

In July 2021, 82-year-old activist and Jesuit priest, Stan Swamy died in custody in Mumbai. The special court, which denied him bail on medical grounds, justified that verdict, saying consideration of his health condition was “outweighed by the collective interest of the community.” So the court assumed that its judgment, based on the opinion of an undefined collective interest, had greater validity than public opinion. Despite the outcry after the priest’s death in custody, many social activists, who have been incarcerated longer than the Jesuit and accused of inciting violence during the Bhima Koregaon clashes, are still neither tried nor free.

In Britain, Priti Patel is the home minister. She is pushing the policing crime sentencing and courts bill through Parliament. The bill is controversial. One of the nation’s leading environmentalists, George Monbiot, has described it as “a massive attack on democratic rights”. The former Conservative home minister, Theresa May, who went on to become prime minister (PM), criticised the powers the bill gives to the home minister to declare an event a “serious annoyance”. David Blunkett, former Labour home minister, described it as “making the UK like Putin’s Russia.”

Patel is no stranger to controversy. When May was PM, she forced Patel to resign for holding meetings with Israeli officials, unaccompanied by her staff. Boris Johnson recalled and promoted Patel, making her home minister. But then the home ministry’s permanent secretary, Philip Rutnam, resigned protesting against Patel’s treatment of her staff. She agreed to a 340,000 pound settlement and 30,000 pounds in costs to Rutnam to avoid having to appear at an employment tribunal.

On Wednesday, Johnson apologised in Parliament for attending a Downing Street party held by his staff in May 2020 when his government had banned social occasions to curb the spread of Covid-19. He maintained that he had thought the party was a “work occasion”, and so he was obliged to attend it.

This revelation has sparked off another crisis in the Conservative Party. The leader of the party in Scotland, Douglas Ross, said, “The Prime Minister’s position is no longer tenable.” But members of Johnson’s cabinet, including Patel and Chancellor of the Exchequer (finance minister), Rishi Sunak, are supporting him.

Johnson will stay on until a senior civil servant is appointed to investigate parties held by officials and politicians during lockdowns and an official report is published. So, it appears that in Britain and India what is needed is what the Indian home minister is looking for: A system of justice entirely independent of politicians and civil servants.

The views expressed are personal

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