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Police reform and the crucial judicial actor

Topics Covered: Structure, organization and functioning of the Executive and the Judiciary Ministries and Departments of the Government; pressure groups and formal/informal associations and their role in the Polity.

Police reform and the crucial judicial actor


The death of a father and son due to alleged custodial torture in Sathankulam town near Thoothukudi in Tamil Nadu has brought into focus the topic “Police reforms and the role of Judiciary “.

Such recurring incidents also raise one significant question:

  • How many more times must powerless citizens suffer the blows of a lathi or a baton, the kicks of patent leather boots, be violated by the “wooden rollers” around their private areas, not to mention spending hours inside a police lockup, all as a part of an “investigation” by police searching for “truth”?

Role of judiciary:

As always, when the conversation veers in this direction it becomes natural to look towards the judiciary as the source of hope and action.

In this case, the Madurai High Court has taken notice on its own and is “closely” monitoring the situation.

How has the Supreme Court handled this topic in the past?

Supreme Court has intervened multiple times in the 1990s through cases such as Joginder Kumar v. State of UP [AIR 1994 SC 1349] and D.K. Basu v. State of West Bengal [(1997) 1 SCC 416], where guidelines were passed to try and secure two rights in the context of any state action:

  1. A right to life.
  2. A right to know.

Through the guidelines, the Court sought to curb the power of arrest, as well as ensure that an accused person is made aware of all critical information regarding her arrest and also convey this to friends and family immediately in the event of being taken in custody.

  • The Code of Criminal Procedure (Amendment) Act, 2008 gave statutory backing to these judicial guidelines; it remains part of the law today.

Finally, in Prakash Singh v. Union of India (2006) case, the Court pushed through new legislation for governing police forces to be passed by States across India. A key component of the new legislation was a robust setup for accountability that contemplated a grievance redress mechanism. 

What else has been advised by the judiciary to reduce police violence?

  1. Support for “scientific” investigations.
  2. Fascination for techniques such as narcoanalysis, ensuring video recording of investigations.
  3. Passing orders for installing closed-circuit television cameras inside police stations.

Why judicial interventions have failed to curb the violence?

Judiciary’s approach of simply passing directions and guidelines, has proven to be a failure.

  • For it is the ordinary magistrate, and not the constitutional court, who is the judicial actor wielding real power to realise substantial change in police practices.
  • Gap between the highest court and the lowly police officer in India has been demonstrated through studies which show how despite criminal laws being struck down as unconstitutional, they continue to be enforced in various parts of the country by local police.

What needs to be done?

Rather than expend energies in only passing more guidelines, constitutional courts must seriously contend with the concrete cases that come their way and expose how hard it is for a common man to get justice against police violence, either through compensation claims or prosecutions.

They must shed the institutional baggage which often leads to them protecting the supposedly vulnerable morale of police. 

It is time to consider sanctions at a larger scale and impose monetary penalties at the district level, to drive home the message that the erring actions of one officer must be seen as a failure of the force itself.

They could strike an inspired move by reorienting their guidelines to try and change the practices of magistrates, over whom they exercise powers of superintendence, as opposed to other non-judicial actors.


Prelims Link:

  1. When was the National Police Commission established?
  2. Ribeiro committee is associated with?
  3. Key recommendations made by Malimath Committee.
  4. Police under 7th schedule of the Indian Constitution.
  5. Prakash Singh case is more popularly associated with?


Write a note on police reforms.

Sources: The Hindu.