A Case for Time Indexed Laws

In this article, Sibin Sabu, 2010-14 batch alumnus of MACE writes about how laws must be updated to take into account the changes that happen with time.

Every policy has a lifetime after which it will become obsolete. Policies, and the acts which enable them, should be indexed to time to ensure that they are updated to account for the changes that occur with changing times.

Obsolete laws act like rust. The Indian Government had recently identified the need to keep the law book updated. Last year, a two member government committee had identified 1741 laws which had become obsolete. Unnoticed by many, the central government has been passing bills repealing them. Even during the mayhem in the Lok Sabha recently, the government managed to repeal nearly 300 redundant laws. The effort to identify obsolete laws is taken up by different state governments as well.

Sync with scientific advancements

Many of the laws in existence today came into being decades ago, some were enacted even before our independence. Time has made many such laws obsolete and redundant. There is little doubt that there needs to be a more systematic mechanism in place to deal with them.

There are many reasons why laws become obsolete. The most common reason would be technological innovations.

Most of the barriers faced by business community also stems from having archaic laws in place which enables ‘Red Tape’ and causes ‘avoidable delays’. The need for paper work and procedural delays could have been eliminated had e-Governance been enabled. Laws created before the invention of computers would insist on paperwork and maintenance of manual registers. Thus, laws should be in sync with advances in science and technology.

Interpretation of Morality

Another reason laws become obsolete is due to changes in the interpretation of morality due to changing perceptions and values in the society. Practices that are part of custom today might be treated as punishable offences tomorrow – and vice versa.

Slavery and dowry are some examples as to how practices which were once socially acceptable became (or, is becoming) unacceptable with time. On the other hand, different countries have been changing their rulebook to incorporate changing perceptions of the society. The rights of LGBT are prime examples of this.

The central question to be addressed here is whether laws should follow society or whether society should follow laws. All laws are based on interpretations of morality. Hence, who determines whether something is moral, immoral or amoral is very important. Bringing in a system whereby public opinion is captured is necessary. Some countries do it through referendum. India, too, needs to develop its own system to deal with challenges of this kind.

Changing Societal Requirements

Third reason necessitating updation of laws is the changing requirements and needs of the society. The Shops and Establishments Act enacted by different states is a prime example. In most of the states, this Act makes it mandatory for shops and establishments to observe one day as a holiday in each week. This is again an outdated section in the act which is opposed to the changing needs of the society at large. Some states have recently allowed shops to be open throughout the year while maintaining that each worker should be allowed at least an off-day per week.

IT sector establishments are also largely governed by the Shops and Establishments Act. However, the act doesn’t cater to the requirements of the IT sector. The stipulated time frame hurts their prospects of catering to a global audience. This happened because, at the time of creation of this Act, Information Technology was an unknown entity and comes under the standard definition of shops and establishments.

There are other grey areas. The Kerala Shops and Establishments Act prohibit employing women after 7pm on grounds of safety. It was enacted at a time when electricity was a rarity in the state. Now, there is no reason why such a time limit has to be put in place. In fact, having such a time limit could actually turn out to be counter-productive and make public spaces unsafe for women as there would be very few of them on roads after 7pm because of this provision. A careful study is required to understand whether imposing such restrictions have proven to be counter-effective.

Need for updating penalty

Laws will also turn obsolete if penalty imposed is not updated. Penalty or punishment for non-compliance of law is a powerful mechanism to deter wrongdoing and for its redressal. Almost all legislations made by government will include details of the penalty imposed for its non-compliance. The penalty imposed at the time of creation of the Act will become insignificant over time unless it is updated.

For example, an act made 50 years ago would have stipulated a penalty of Rs.10 for a wrongdoing. It would have been a huge amount to pay back then. But, with inflation and changes in economic conditions, a penalty of Rs.10 would amount to nothing in today’s world. Thus, the very purpose of imposing penalty is not served here. When the penalty imposed is not updated, the Act itself will be diluted and rendered obsolete.

It is therefore very important that the penalty imposed stays relevant. There are different ways in which this can be done. The problem of an ‘outdated penalty’ arises when the amount stipulated as penalty is fixed or absolute. Tagging penalty imposed to inflation can be a good option. Using indices like the Consumer Price Index will automatically update the penalty imposed. Another possible option would be to update the penalty imposed after every few years, say, at the time of pay revision. Penalty can be tagged to the salary received by government employees as it will cover results of inflation also.

Making a policy or an act is not an end in itself. They can be designed in such a way that it will automatically trigger an updation after a couple of decades. Food products often come with expiry dates. It would not be a bad idea to have something similar for each policy and act, after which it has to be compulsorily reviewed.

References:

  1. http://articles.economictimes.indiatimes.com/2015-05-27/news/62719488_1_statute-books-two-bills-law-ministry
  2. http://indiatoday.intoday.in/story/haryana-obsolete-laws-iqbal-singh-chandigarh-panchkula/1/454203.html
  3. http://www.irishtimes.com/news/politics/state-repeals-almost-6-000-obsolete-laws-1.2282480
  4. http://www.per.gov.ie/minister-harris-welcomes-passage-of-bill-repealing-800-years-of-obsolete-laws/
  5. http://www.lc.kerala.gov.in/images/Current/ksceamt.pdf
  6. http://lawcommissionofindia.nic.in/reports/Report_No.250_signed_copy.pdf
  7. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-29516976

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