The Finance Ministry headed by Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman has proposed to decriminalise minor economic offences including bouncing of bank cheques and non-repayment of loans. The cheque that is returned due to lack of sufficient funds in a bank account is considered as an offence under Negotiable Instruments Act (NIA). Apart from this, it also invites a two-year imprisonment and a fine equivalent to twice the amount involved.
The government is seeking to decriminalise 39 economic offences in 19 acts and plans to reconsider them as civil offences. The Finance Ministry has been taking opinions from stakeholders, including the state government.
Speaking to India Today TV, a senior Finance Ministry official said, “Criminal penalties, including imprisonment for minor offences act as deterrents, and this is perceived as one of the major reasons impacting business sentiment and hindering investments, both from domestic and foreign investors. This becomes even more pertinent in the post COVID-19 response strategy to help revive economic growth and improve the justice system.”
The decision is aimed at reviving the economy and encouraging businesses at large. At this time, where the world has been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, Government of India raises concern over economic distress, which the citizens might face.
Instead, the government might propose an alternative where the accused (whose bank account doesn’t have the required amount) is asked to pay a penalty to end the issue of cheque bounce. The government has also suggested that the court could decide upon the element of criminality whilst an adjudicating office with quasi-judicial powers can ascertain a combined penalty.
Apart from that, the Finance Ministry also talked over to bring required and necessary changes in various other sections of Banning of Unregulated Deposit Schemes Act, RBI Act, NABARD Act, SARFAESI Act, Insurance Act, PFRDA Act and Payments and Settlements Systems Act.
Gathering opinions from stakeholders, the Finance Ministry’s Department of financial services has asked for reports from the state governments and UT administrations, non-government organisations, academicians, public and private sector organisations, multilateral institutions to document their comments by June 23. Upon gathering all the information, the Central government will then examine the submitted reports and finalise the rules.
In a Statement of Reasons, issued by the Ministry of Finance, stated, “Decriminalisation of minor offences is one of the thrust areas of the government. The risk of imprisonment for actions or omissions that aren’t necessarily fraudulent or the outcome of mala fide intent is a big hurdle in attracting investments. The ensuing uncertainty in legal processes and the time taken for resolution in the courts hurt the ease of doing business.”
As per the government’s assessment, offences that involve minor financial gains often travel long legal procedures and end up blocking various levels of judiciaries. The government however doesn’t plan to make things easy for those with mala fide intent. Hence, one of the major reasons the ministry has laid a proposal, which would maintain a balance where mala fide intent will lead to a suitable punishment and less serious offenders would be hardly compounded.
The legal framework, which is still in the process, will comprise enough penalties that may work as impediments. With this re-allocation of criminal offences to be considered compoundable, the Statement of Reason aims at decreasing burden on businesses and help regain confidence among investors. This will help evaluate nature of fraud in comparison to negligence or careless breach before the fixing of criminal accountability.