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Law Reform has been a continuing process particularly during the last 300 years or more in Indian history. In the ancient period, when religious and customary law occupied the field, reform process had been ad hoc and not institutionalised through duly constituted law reform agencies. However, since the third decade of the nineteenth century, Law Commissions were constituted by the Government from time to time and were empowered to recommend legislative reforms with a view to clarify, consolidate and codify particular branches of law where the Government felt the necessity for it. The first such Commission was established in 1834 under the Charter Act of 1833 under the Chairmanship of Lord Macaulay which recommended codification of the Penal Code, the Criminal Procedure Code and a few other matters. Thereafter, the second, third and fourth Law Commissions were constituted in 1853, 1861 and 1879 respectively which, during a span of fifty years contributed a great deal to enrich the Indian Statute Book with a large variety of legislations on the pattern of the then prevailing English Laws adapted to Indian conditions. The Indian Code of Civil Procedure, the Indian Contract Act, the Indian Evidence Act, the Transfer of Property Act. etc. are products of the labour of the first four Law Commissions.
After independence, the Constitution of India with its Fundamental Rights and Directive Principles of State Policy gave a new direction to law reform geared to the needs of a democratic legal order in a plural society. Though the Constitution stipulated the continuation of pre-Constitution Laws (Article 372) till they are amended or repealed, there had been demands in Parliament and outside for establishing a Central Law Commission to recommend revision and updating of the inherited laws to serve the changing needs of the country. The Government of India reacted favourably and established the First Law Commission of Independent India in 1955 with the then Attorney-General of India, Mr. M. C. Setalvad, as its Chairman. Since then twenty one more Law Commissions have been appointed, each with a three-year term and with different terms of reference.
The Commission’s regular staff consists of about a dozen research personnel of different ranks and varied experiences. A small group of secretarial staff looks after the administration side of the Commission’s operations.
Basically the projects undertaken by the Commission are initiated in the Commission’s meetings which take place frequently. Priorities are discussed, topics are identified and preparatory work is assigned to each member of the Commission. Depending upon the nature and scope of the topic, different methodologies for collection of data and research are adopted keeping the scope of the proposal for reform in mind.
Discussion at Commission meetings during this period helps not only in articulating the issues and focussing the research, but also evolving a consensus among members of the Commission. What emerges out of this preparatory work in the Commission is usually a working paper outlining the problem and suggesting matters deserving reform. The paper is then sent out for circulation in the public and concerned interest groups with a view to eliciting reactions and suggestions. Usually a carefully prepared questionnaire is also sent with the document.
The Law Commission has been anxious to ensure that the widest section of people are consulted in formulating proposals for law reforms. In this process, partnerships are established with professional bodies and academic institutions. Seminars and workshops are organised in different parts of the country to elicit critical opinion on proposed strategies for reform.
Once the data and informed views are assembled, the Commission’s staff evaluates them and organises the information for appropriate introduction in the report which is written either by the Member-Secretary or one of the Members or the Chairman of the Commission. It is then subjected to close scrutiny by the full Commission in prolonged meetings. Once the Report and summary are finalised, the Commission may decide to prepare a draft amendment or a new bill which may be appended to its report. Thereafter, the final report is forwarded to the Government.
It is obvious that the success of the Commission’s work in law reforms is dependent upon its capacity to assemble the widest possible inputs from the public and concerned interest groups. The Commission is constantly on the look out for strategies to accomplish this goal within the limited resources available to it. In this regard the media plays an important role which the Commission proposes to tap more frequently than before.
The Commission welcomes suggestions from any person, institution or organisation on the issues under consideration of the Commission, which may be sent to the Member-Secretary.