7 Landmark Cases In India That Gave Birth To New Laws

7 Landmark Cases In India That Gave Birth To New Laws

The laws that govern a country are universal and objective, but have to be contextual to the changing times as well. As society and culture evolve, the legal framework in place has to evolve as well, leading to judicial decisions that revamp the legal system as a whole. From the abolition of the jury system after the famous Nanavati case, to the Nirbhaya case that spurred the Juvenile Justice Act, landmark incidents are constantly giving rise to new laws that refine our justice system. While some might seem reactionary, others are essential to the progress of society.

Understanding such prominent incidents can give us vital insight into how society was perceived by law-makers at different points of time, and how they used the tools at their disposal to shape it in response to the perception of the people in India. Keeping in that in mind, here are eight significant incidents in India that led to the formation of new, important laws, changing various parts of our legal system. Whether these changes were for the better or worse can be constantly debated from different sides, but these incidents mark crucial times in our judiciary nonetheless.

I. K.M Nanavati vs State of Maharashtra

A crime of passion, which led to the ultimate abolition of India’s jury system.

In 1959, Sylvia Nanavati confessed to having an affair with Prem Ahuja, infuriating her naval commander husband K.M Nanavati. In a fit of rage, Nanavati walked into Ahuja’s apartment to confront him, and ended up firing three shots at Ahuja, leading to a widely debated murder charge case.

The Verdict
Owing to Nanavati’s high profile funding, the jury pronounced him ‘not guilty’ by an eight is to one majority—a decision which was found perverse and overruled by the Judge. Following this controversial decision, the case was sent to the Bombay High Court, who overturned the jury’s decision and held that the accused was guilty of murder under section 302 of the Indian Penal Code, thereby sentencing him to life imprisonment. The Supreme Court ultimately upheld this final verdict.

What does it mean for us?
As a result of this controversial case, India’s jury system was completely abolished, and was removed from the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973. This forever transformed the mechanism by which law and order would be delivered in India. In another landmark change, as the crux of the case deeply impacted public perception, it brought the commencement of media trials in the judicial system, something we’re all too familiar with today.

II. Mary Roy vs the State of Kerala

Embracing the initial steps towards breaking legal gender barriers in India.

After the death of her father who passed away without leaving without a will, Mary Roy, educator, activist and mother of author Arundhati Roy, decided to challenge the discriminatory provisions of the inheritance Act applicable to her. As per the Travancore Christian Succession Act, 1092, if a man died without specifying a share of his property to his daughter, unlike for sons, she would not be entitled to anything. In addition, one-fourth of the value of the son’s share or Rs. 5,000, may be provided.

Invoking Article 14 of the constitution, which prescribes right to equality as a fundamental right of each citizen, Mary Roy battled for equality in property rights for herself, and for Syrian Christian women in the future.
The Verdict
At the end of the legal feud, the Supreme Court held that the Indian Succession Act, 1925, which recognized equal succession rights for daughters and sons would now be applicable to Christians in Travancore and Cochin as well, marking an important judicial win for both men and women.
In addition to that, it also provided that a widow would be entitled to get one third as her share from her deceased husband, while the rest of the property would be divided equally amongst her sons and daughters.
What does it mean for us?
This incident was one of the stepping stones towards restoring the constitutional right to equality for all across the subcontinent. Emphasizing that no religious denomination can take away from gender equality, this Supreme Court judgment was a landmark decision in India’s legal history.

III. Mathura Case

An important step towards refining India’s rape laws. 

On a cold rainy night, Mathura, a minor tribal girl was summoned to the police station by two police officers regarding a complaint lodged against her boyfriend by her brother. Taking advantage of the situation, the police officers threatened her into submission, raped her and then let her. Following this, Mathura filed a rape case against the two police constables in question.

The Verdict
As the trial came to a close, the Supreme Court acquitted the police constables on the grounds that Mathura neither raised an alarm, nor had injuries on her body to show any kind of struggle or resistance, which could be assumed as a ‘peaceful or consensual’ affair, and therefore rape could not be proven.

In the aftermath of this unjust verdict by the Supreme Court, a huge wave of wrath by the public was triggered, which ultimately led to the amendment of the Criminal Law Act, 1983. Now, custodial rape and the procedure to deal with ‘consent’ has been included under rape laws of India.

What does it mean for us?
This landmark legislation stirred up a hornet’s nest and forced the indolent government to awaken, introducing the crucial question regarding consent.

IV. Mohd. Ahmed Khan vs Shah Bano Begum

A story that triggered personal law battles in India, as well as the debate on religion-specific laws.

At the age of 65, Begum Shah Bano, mother of five, was divorced by her husband Mohd. Ahmed Khan. As she filed for alimony, which was against the traditions of the Islamic culture, it lead to a long drawn fight against the shackles of personal law, striving for legal secularism. 

The Verdict
As the running government at the time caved to election pressure, it sanctioned the Muslim Women Act, 1986, thus diluting this judgment in favour of Mohd. Ahmed Khan. However, ignoring these political appeasement tactics, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of Shah Bano and entitled her to maintenance under Section 125 of the Criminal Procedure Code in a landmark victory for Muslim women across India.

What does it mean for us?
As Shah Bano fought the legal system to break down discriminatory barriers for women, now all Muslim ex-wives are entitled to basic maintenance for a period of three months post their divorce, after which the burden of her maintenance is transferred to her relatives or the Wakf Board. This case also opened up the crucial debate on Uniform Civil Code in India, once again.

V. Nirbhaya Case

A brutal incident which mobilised a nation-wide movement, leading to reformed yet rigorous and harsh criminal law.

On the night of 16th December 2012, a young 23 year old girl and her companion were lured onto a moving bus by five men and a juvenile in South Delhi. As she suffered ruthless violence and sexual abuse, this case stood as one of the most important in the rape culture in India debate, culminating in an extreme but landmark judgment.   

The Verdict
The Supreme Court held the four men guilty of rape, murder, unnatural offences and destruction of evidence, and later sentenced them to 10 years imprisonment. A while later, the fast track court allows the Juvenile Justice Board to pass its verdict for the juvenile, convicting him of murder and gang rape, sentencing him to three years at a correctional home.

As the entire trial process of this case was under the media spotlight and followed nation-wide, it paved the way to the amendment of the Criminal Act, 2013, which entails the Verma committee to reach a speedier form of justice. Additionally, it brought out major changes in the definitions of rape, gang rape, voyeurism, and so on, as well as an emphasis on new sections like sexual harassment and acid attacks in the Constitution.

Marking an important judicial decision, this case also led to the replacement of India’s Juvenile Justice Act, 2000, stating that the age for trial as an adult would be lowered from 18 years to 16 years for heinous crimes.

What does it mean for us?
This outrageous episode brought about widespread protests and a call for reformation of archaic rape laws in India. The most crucial observation to be made regarding this case is how the judicial system failed to separate society’s emotional reaction from objective proceedings, whereas the focus should have been on efficient investigation and prosecution of sex offenders. Following the knee-jerk judicial decision as an outcome of this case, the Juvenile Justice Act faced controversial criticism and debate stemming from its regressive nature. In the past, this sort of experience has shown that deterrence is one of the least effective theories of punishment, so one could question why such a path was chosen by a judicial system that is riddled with social outrage and subjectivity.

VI.  Rajagopal vs State of Tamil Nadu

The power of freedom, privacy and the press.

This incident begins with a prisoner convicted of murder, who writes an autobiography of the events of the crime, detailing police officials and their involvement in the murder. He then requests the editor and associate editor of a weekly magazine in Madras, to publish it, in order to attain justice.
In the process of publishing, the media house gets arrested by the public officials, scared that their link to the murder case would be revealed. This led the media team, who ultimately became petitioners, to fight for a court order restraining numerous state bodies from interfering with the publishing of the autobiography of the prisoner.

The Verdict
Finally, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the publication in an attempt to uphold freedom of expression and the right to privacy, as the press plays a crucial role in the governance of democracy and acts as the fourth estate. It also concluded that public officials can only recover damages if the published work misrepresented the truth.

What does it mean for us?
This 22-year- old judgment of the Supreme Court set a new bar in ambit of freedom of expression and right to privacy for the media.

VII. Vishaka vs State Of Rajasthan

Allowing the Court to travel beyond the traditional confines of law, the Vishaka case provides a universal solution for sexual harassment at the workplace.

Bhanwari Devi, a social worker in a village in Rajasthan, who tried to discourage a family from marrying off their one year old daughter, was brutally gang raped in an attempt to silence her. As she filed a petition in vain, the apathy and indifference shown by the police officials and the lower courts towards her plight triggered numerous women’s rights groups and NGOs to take up her cause. Even though the mobilization of the NGOs couldn’t help her situation directly, they re-directed their cause to bring a ray of hope to millions of women all over India. And their organised efforts went towards filing an order relating to rights of women in the workplace.

The Verdict:
In light of these discussions, the Supreme Court provided its prime verdict on sexual harassment in India, drawing guidelines for the protection of women in the workplace, in order to administer gender equality and prevent discrimination.

These guidelines included the responsibility upon an employer to prevent sexual harassment and provide techniques for the resolution of complaints within an office environment.

At present, the Vishaka Guidelines have been superseded by the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace Act, 2013.

What does it mean for us?
This was a major milestone for women in search of justice and equality in the workplace, establishing clear definition of sexual harassment.

Special mention: Salman Khan’s 2002 hit-and-run case

Actor Salman Khan’s case created quite a hype in legal circles for one sole reason--he was acquitted and granted bail on the same day. Now, this has created two prominent pathways for advocates all over India, and is believed to soon be a breakthrough in the judicial system because irrespective of the operative part of the judgement, that is whether you’re held guilty or innocent, now you can easily move to the Appeals court to get whichever interim measure you require.