This article is written by Pranav Sethi, from SVKM NMIMS School of law Navi Mumbai. This article analyzes wrongful convictions in prison in light of the case of Vishnu Tiwari v. State of Uttar Pradesh.
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“If the misery of the poor be caused not by the laws of nature, but by our institutions, great is our sin.”
When Vishnu Tiwari was accused of rape, he was just 23 years old. He lacked the financial resources to hire competent legal counsel, and he struggled immensely. His family and his rights were taken away from him after he spent 20 years in jail after being wrongfully convicted. This case has raised serious questions about our criminal justice system and how it works. It makes us doubt the very foundations of our justice system, leading us to wonder if it is faulty and, if so, how can we begin to fix it?
Being sentenced to twenty years for a crime he did not commit is a serious infringement of human rights and fundamental freedoms.
As rightly quoted,
“It is better that ten guilty escape than one innocent suffers”.
Wrongful convictions harm people’s lives as well as their family’s lives. Once an individual has been wrongfully convicted, there is no going back because we live in a culture that will not tolerate them. It becomes more difficult for them to find work, and their lives are no longer the same.
Basic constitutional rights
Our Constitution is an instrument that ensures that we have certain rights that are important to our survival. It ensures that our needs are safeguarded and that we can live a life of integrity and respect for our fundamental moral rights. These basic rights also shield us from government acts, and we must be informed of them.
Article 21 of our Constitution reads, “No person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to a procedure established by law.” This article is the entire foundation of our existence and it was abused in Vishnu’s case. Not only does Article 21 safeguard our right to life, but it also safeguards our right to personal liberty.
The term “right to life” encompasses not only animal existence, but also life with dignity, right to livelihood, right to privacy, right to health, and other elements that make a man’s presence respectable, significant, and perfect.
The Supreme Court of India declared in the landmark case of Maneka Gandhi v. Union of India that “the right to live is not necessarily a substantive privilege, but also repress the right to live with human dignity.”
A detainee’s basic rights
The idea of imprisonment as a punitive measure is the taking it away of a person’s liberty. Imprisonment is viewed as a type of incapacity that limits the criminal’s mobility and thus deprives him or her of the intention to pursue a crime.
Particularly those who have been accused of a crime have basic human rights. The Right to Free Legal Aid and the Right to Appeal are the two most relevant. Vishnu was falsely accused and imprisoned for two decades due to a lack of good legal support.
“This right to free legal aid is a responsibility of the government and is an implied feature of Article 21 in ensuring justice and reasonableness; this cannot be called as government charity,” the Supreme Court said in the case of M.H. Hoskot Vs the State of Maharashtra.
Article 39A, which was originally a DPSP (Directive Principle of State Policy), was later enshrined as a Fundamental Right in Article 21 of the Constitution. A person who has been sentenced has the option to challenge his or her conviction. The Indian government founded the National Legal Services Authority in 1987 for this purpose, enabling those with no means to access legal assistance. Inmates who have been convicted of a crime will receive free legal advice that will assist them in challenging their case.
What is legal aid?
Legal Assistance is a savior for the disadvantaged who cannot afford to pay for legal support. It is voluntary legal aid given to low-income citizens in criminal, administrative, and quasi-judicial cases, as well as any advice on legal issues. According to Justice P.N. Bhagwati, legal aid is a provision that helps the vulnerable and intellectually deficient to have easy accessibility to the justice support system so that ignorance and hardship do not discourage them from accessing fair trials. This service’s main aim is to offer equal justice to the oppressed and downtrodden. This involves not only free legal support in court cases, but also Legal Understanding, Legal Advice, Public Interest Litigation, Legal Mobilizations, Lok Adalats, new regulations, and several other programs that may help to avoid injustice.
Issues and challenges while Providing legal aid
But with all the laws, boards, and authorities in place, there is always a void that needs to be addressed. Many people today tolerate discrimination because they cannot afford to pay an attorney to protect them. There are several explanations for a large number of pending lawsuits in courts; many individuals are innocent but convicted and unable to defend themselves. There are also plenty of obstacles that stand in the way of legal aid programs being implemented.
Legal education and understanding are lacking in the general population
These legal assistance programs are for the impoverished and illiterate, and their main concern is their lack of education. They lack a legal education, which means they are unaware of their fundamental and legal rights. People are also unaware of the legal aid programs available to them. As a result, the legal aid movement has failed to attain its target because people are unfamiliar with Lok Adalats, Legal Aid, and other terms.
Access to good activists, lawyers, and others aren’t available
Both lawyers and activists nowadays claim a decent fee for their services, and the majority of them are unable to engage in such social services. While there are a limited number of lawyers who offer these services, the absence of high-quality legal assistance impedes the accessibility of justice.
Volunteer paralegals are underutilized
The primary responsibility of these paralegal volunteers is to support legal aid camps and schemes, as well as to reach out to the needy and vulnerable members of society. However, these paralegal volunteers are not properly trained, monitored, or checked. Also, these volunteers are negligible in comparison to the overall population.
One of the most fundamental wrongdoings committed by the state is wrongful prosecution. In the case of Babloo Chauhan v N.C.T Delhi, the Delhi High Court ruled that this is a form of gross injustice and that a legislative structure is required to ensure that citizens are not wrongfully imprisoned, punished and that appropriate remedies are available to them. Our criminal justice system is plagued with wrongful convictions. In India’s inquisitorial scheme, the prosecutor bears the responsibility of proving that a person has committed a crime.
However, in the pursuit of justice, it also punishes and prosecutes the wrong person, making matters even worse. Unfortunately, the truth of our criminal justice system is that citizens are languishing in prison as a result of false charges, with no sufficient and effective solution.
In India, the idea of wrongful convictions is not new. It has been taking place since the beginning of time. This idea has only risen in popularity, from the “British Sarkar” to the Present-day government. In India, there is no reimbursement system or legal process in place that enables the government to be kept responsible for its mistakes. As a result, victims of the justice system often approach courts to obtain redress. Many cases have been decided by our country’s different courts that demonstrate this.
The rate of wrongful convictions in the United States has been steadily rising in recent years. In today’s world, there are many more innocent people in jail than ever before. According to the 2019 Prison Statistics India (PSI) results, 69.0 percent (3,30,487) of the total prison population (4,78,600) is on trial.
According to a comparison of the PSI studies from 2015 and 2019, the number of inmates awaiting trial has risen by 1.8 percent in the last four years. Although the report does not indicate the number of inmates who were wrongfully imprisoned or released in connection with an indictment, it gives us an imbalanced image of the situation.
The notion of prison is an obscure concept. Few people are aware of the true state of India’s prisons. They are in appalling condition, with some missing even the most basic necessities of life such as adequate rest and sanitation. This is a breach of the fundamental concept of human integrity in the twenty-first century when criminal justice systems around the world are increasingly shifting from retributive to reformative. Living in such circumstances as a prisoner is deplorable, and for those who are innocent but have been wrongfully convicted by the state, it shatters their confidence in the justice system.
Article 21 of the Constitution ensures everyone the right to personal liberty and the freedom to live a dignified life. This right to a dignified life is more than just animal existence; it is the right to live in a free society where they are safe from the state’s atrocities. Infringement of human rights as a result of police brutality and prosecutorial misconduct elicits state responsibility, which it cannot hide under the guise of sovereign powers. Individuals must be compensated by the state for wrongs done by it and its agents or servants. Though the legislation is unclear on the principle of reimbursement, the courts have established compensatory jurisprudence under which the state is held responsible for human rights violations over time. In this situation, since travesty of justice is one of the most basic human rights, the state is obligated to compensate the victims of false convictions.
The terms “vexatious litigant” and “vexatious proceeding” are described as follows in Black’s Law Dictionary, Eighth Edition:
- A litigant who files frivolous cases regularly is known as a vexatious litigant.
- A vexatious proceeding is a lawsuit filed with malice and without justification.
- The term “vexatious” refers to something that causes or is likely to annoy. “An action brought to offend the opponent and with no fair prospect of success,” according to the definition of “vexatious action” or “vexatious proceedings.
Vishnu Tiwari v. State of UP
Vishnu Tiwari was sentenced to prison in 2001 after being found guilty of rape and breaching the SC/ST Act in 2003. However, after around 17 years when the case came in front of the Allahabad High Court bench, they found that the charges against him to be baseless and acquitted him.
The false rape case – facts
In the case, Tiwari was 23 when he was apprehended for the first time in September 2000, relying on an FIR lodged by the woman, her husband, and her father-in-law. He was accused of sexually assaulting, raping, and beating her when she was five months pregnant.
The girl who filed the rape charge against Vishnu Tiwari was from the same village as him and said he assaulted her on her way to work.
Following that, he was charged with rape and brutality under the SC/ST Act. Tiwari was released on parole but was arrested once more in 2001. He served two years as an undertrial before being sentenced to life in prison by a Lalitpur trial court in 2003. He was convicted for ten years in jail for rape under Sections 376 and 506 of the Indian Penal Code. Vishnu’s problems didn’t stop there; he was sentenced to life in prison after being found guilty under Sections 3(1)(7) and 3(2)(5) of the SC/ST Atrocities Act.
Tiwari tried to get his conviction reversed by a trial court in 2005, but his appeal was found to be faulty since all of the relevant documents were missing. For the next 16 years, it stayed that way.
According to Tiwari, the case emerged from a land and animal dispute. He never met the woman and just knew her as a bahu. “All they wanted was money from him under the Harijan act,” and he had never thought that because of their greed, he will have to spend the next 20 years in prison.
A Division Bench of Justices Dr. Kaushal Jayendra Thaker and Gautam Chowdhary while passing the order for the release of one Vishnu in its acquittal judgment the Allahabad High Court mentioned this.
“Most unfortunate, aspect of this litigation is that the appeal was preferred through jail,” the order said. “The matter remained as a defective matter for 16 years and, therefore, we normally do not mention defective appeal numbers but we have mentioned the same.”
The medical findings did not reveal any signs of sperm and forcible intercourse, according to the high court. “We discover one more fact: despite the prosecutrix’s accusation of rape, there are no injuries to the lady’s private parts, even though she is a fully grown woman who was pregnant and is said to have been thrashed,” the court said. “Furthermore, there was a motive on the part of the plaintiff that the parties were engaged in a land dispute.
It was also discovered that there were some inconsistencies in the original filing of the FIR and that it was a case of the false rape allegation. This failure of scrutiny reflects poorly on the cops, who refused to perform a thorough investigation and dismissed the allegation is unfounded.
The Court went on to say that there were some inconsistencies in the victim’s and witnesses’ statements, based on its previous findings. Since the High Court scolded the police and the state in its decision, we could not overlook the fact that an innocent man had lost 20 years of his life for a crime he did not commit.
The Atrocities Act is a Draconian statute that leads to a travesty of justice
This case exemplifies how the Atrocities Act is being abused to exact vengeance or harass other people. As illustrated in the Vishnu Tiwari case, innocent people are often framed as a result of personal rivalries and a desire for wealth. The SC/STs Atrocities Act is being abused to that level in how to abuse the law for monetary compensation and harassment of others.
According to government records, 8900 cases filed under the Atrocities Act were found to be false in 2016. The Atrocities Act can be invoked at any time to inflict vengeance, as happened in the case of a retired army man in Agra. Following a scuffle involving children from both communities, the SC/ST Act was enacted.
When you combine the slow pace of the Indian judicial system with the draconian Atrocities Act, it’s easy to see why judicial reform is so important. The general rule of law is that one is innocent unless proven guilty, but there are no provisions for compensation if courts make mistakes, as in the case of Tiwari. Shouldn’t those who file false charges be held accountable?
NHRC (National Human Rights Commission) action
The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) has released summons to the Uttar Pradesh chief secretary and director general of police, demanding a detailed report on Tiwari’s 20-year detention, noting that this appears to be a non-application of Section 433 CrPc.
The government has the power to commute sentences under Section 433. The NHRC has also requested information on the actions taken against public officials involved in the case, as well as the measures taken to rehabilitate Tiwari.
Solutions & recommendations to ensure improvement in the legal aid system
The goal of legal aid can be reached when all the poorest and most vulnerable are aware of this and gain from it, as it is their constitutional right. As a result, some changes can be introduced to the legal assistance system to address those gaps.
Legal assistance and legal education programs
There should be a large-scale organization of legal services camps and Lok Adalats to raise public consciousness about people’s human rights and free legal aid services for the vulnerable. The foundation of privilege facilities in various backward regions should be encouraged to educate people about their rights and laws and to enable them to use free legal services to resolve disputes by Alternative Dispute Resolution, Lok Adalats, and other means.
The task to Boost Legal Literacy
Other developing countries have two-year or five-year missions to educate citizens about their rights and laws. India should also implement a five-year plan to inform citizens about their legal rights and responsibilities.
An approach based on feedback
The evaluation of the function of the counsels can be done using a feedback method, which entails asking people for feedback on the counsel’s work and then compiling proper status reports for each advocate. All of this could be achieved by establishing a proper oversight committee.
Attorneys should be paid more
Lawyers today find it hard to manage out their services for free in a competitive market like litigation because they are not interested in offering free legal services and want to be paid for their services. As a result, the salary given to lawyers by the courts of the state for representing or assisting the accused of free should be increased.
Hence, some of the shortcomings in the system lead us to conclude that our system needs urgent change. The foundations of the criminal justice system must be improved, including the police, the courts, and the system of justice. Investigations must change, regulations must be strictly followed, and the judiciary must take a more prominent role. For appealed cases, there should be regular inspections, and the jail authority should vigorously pursue commutations of sentences for people who have been confined for a long time. To Sum up, each division of the criminal justice system should work together to achieve that no innocent citizens feel the brunt of our system’s shortcomings.
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