India should adopt a tort law to strengthen its delivery of justice

Source: The post is based on the article “India should adopt a tort law to strengthen its delivery of justice” published in Live Mint on 24th May 2023.

Syllabus: GS 2 – Governance – Important Aspects of Governance, Transparency and Accountability

Relevance: Need for tort law in India.

News: The article discusses the punitive damage and the need for tort law in India.

What is punitive damage?

Punitive damages are fundamental to legal structures worldwide because they prevent wrongdoing and ensure justice and accountability.

Punitive damages are imposed in addition to the actual damages suffered by victims and are frequently enforced in cases involving extreme negligence.

US, China, Australia, Canada and the UK utilize this legal provision, to ensure accountability.

However, India does not have the concept of punitive damages in its laws. It has been mostly inclined towards compensatory damages rather than punitive damages. This highlights the need of tort law in India.

Why is a tort law needed in India?

Multiple instances such as structures collapsing, people inflicting harm on others, etc. are happening frequently in India. It is the common who suffers the most with these problems.

Therefore, a tort law is needed – a) to enhance legal provisions, protect the most vulnerable and ensure justice, b) it would ensure parties, including government entities, are held accountable for negligent actions, c) to raise expectations of civic responsibilities and promote more faith in the legal systems that protect society.

Moreover, inconsistent rulings on punitive damages by Indian courts in major incidents like the Uphaar cinema fire accident has highlighted the need for tort law.

The compensation provided in the Uphaar cinema case was very less compared to the recent Morbi incident. Therefore, there has been disparities in the compensation.

Hence, a tort law will streamline the legal landscape, providing a consistent approach to all civil wrongs, leading to better risk management and efficient use of resources.

What has been the history of tort law?

British period: In 1882, when the British introduced comprehensive codification of criminal, commercial and procedural laws, tort law remained uncodified.

The fourth law commission in 1879 emphasized the importance of having a torts law in India. This led to draft a Law of Torts for India in 1886. However, this draft never progressed to legislative action.

After independence: The First Law Commission of India’s first report in April 1956 outlined proposals for legislation regarding the liability of the state in tort cases.

A bill based on the report was introduced in the Lok Sabha in 1967 and referred to a joint committee. Unfortunately, due to the dissolution of the Lok Sabha in 1971, the bill was not passed and has not been revived since.

What can be the way ahead?

Although some higher courts, including the Supreme Court, have granted punitive damages in specific cases, they have also decreased damages in other instances, indicating inconsistency in the application of this principle.

Therefore, a law of tort that extends its jurisdiction to courts including subordinate courts is crucial. This would democratize access to justice by making punitive damages a right available to all victims of civil wrongs rather than a few.

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