I sat next to an old man at the back of Bombay Magistrates’ Court and asked him why he was there. His sad story of a false accusation was not nearly as shocking as his total, utter, resignation to the fact that it would take him years and years to clear his name. He was utterly overwhelmed by the ‘system’. This was just one of many insights that I gained last week into the challenges facing those who want to improve India’s criminal justice system. In Bombay High Court a judge was dealing with vast lists of interlocutory applications in criminal matters. Even she seemed resigned to inevitability of delays as she rejected endless applications, tipping the files off the front of her table onto the floor in front of her.

In Delhi I had the opportunity to talk with senior police officers at their Advanced Training Centre. I left there with an overwhelming impression of the enormity of the challenges that face Indian police, with the sense that some of them too found their task almost overwhelming. One of the problems created by delay is a huge unconvicted prison population (‘undertrials’, in the Indian terminology). My old man in Mumbai was lucky to be on bail. In Tihar Jail in Delhi, which we visited, we learnt that an astonishing 75% of prisoners are under trial: (the same figure as at the end of 2012). What is the cause of this terrible statistic? (We worry about the high figure of 15% unconvicted in England and Wales, in which figure women, and those from black and minority ethnic and foreign national backgrounds are worryingly over-represented.)

Is the problem that the police arrest people and then start the slow business of collecting evidence? Or a culture in the courts which does not lead to speedy decision making? Difficult questions to ask and even more difficult to answer. I was privileged to lead a discussion with members of the Law Commission in Delhi. Everyone knows the problems: I was asked to speak on three areas of criminal justice reform in England and Wales: plea bargains, sentence guidelines and legal aid. My very wise audience were well aware of the dangers and traps of unpiloted reforms. But doing nothing is not the answer!

I was deeply impressed by the energy emerging from the recently established National Law University, Delhi, where we witnessed the presentation of a new scholarship for an Indian to study for the LLM in Cambridge, funded by leading IP lawyer Prathiba Singh. NLUD buzzes with a concern for social justice.

The Master at the National Law Univesrity Delhi

Nicola Padfield (left) at the National Law University Delhi. Prathiba Singh (right).

In Mumbai I had the privilege of talking to students of law, criminology and social work at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences. TISS’s commitment to “field action projects” was inspirational: students are not only involved in placements in the real world, but actively engaged in working for improvements to respond to the social realities which they face.

The commitment of so many talented people, both at the beginning of the careers and at the height of them, was deeply impressive. If only they could effect some real improvement to the system.

Nicola Padfield

About Nicola Padfield

Nicola Padfield MA, Dip Crim, DES became Master of Fitzwilliam College in October 2013. She is a Reader in Criminal and Penal Justice at the Law Faculty, University of Cambridge, and has been a Fellow of Fitzwilliam College since 1991.

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