New criminal laws give doctors immunity against medical negligence: Is it really what it says?

Union Home Minister Amit Shah introduced a law to protect doctors from severe punishment for mistakes, proposing a maximum penalty of two years for medical negligence. The law also suggests strict punishment for mob violence.

On December 21st, 2023 union Home Minister Amit Shah announced in the Lok Sabha that the revised criminal law bill aims to shield medical professionals from criminal prosecution in cases of deaths due to medical negligence. The bill secured passage in the Lok Sabha through a voice vote, with 97 suspended Opposition MPs absent for “misconduct” during the winter session.

Amit Shah, addressing concerns about doctors facing criminal charges for negligence, stated, “Currently, if a death occurs due to a doctor’s negligence, it is treated as criminal negligence, almost like murder. Therefore, I will officially amend it to relieve doctors from this criminal liability.”

The amendments were proposed after the Indian Medical Association (IMA) urged a review. “We have decided to exempt doctors from the culpability of criminal negligence,” Shah added.

Previously, under colonial-era laws, medical negligence resulting in death could lead to a maximum punishment of two years in prison, a fine, or both, according to Section 304 A of the Indian Penal Code (IPC). The revised IPC now absolves doctors from criminal proceedings related to medical negligence.

However, after the Bill’s passage in both Houses, it became evident that doctors don’t actually receive outright immunity in cases of death due to negligence under the provisions of the BNS. Instead, the legislation maintains a maximum two-year imprisonment.

The difference, though, is that this is a slightly reduced penalty compared to other death-related offenses, the punishments for which have been increased.

On December 21, the Lok Sabha passed three bills: the Bharatiya Nyaya (Second) Sanhita, 2023; the Bharatiya Nagarik Suraksha (Second) Sanhita, 2023; and the Bharatiya Sakshya (Second) Bill, 2023. Shah emphasized that these new criminal laws align with the Constitution’s principles of individual freedom, human rights, and equal treatment. Additionally, the Bills propose life imprisonment or the death penalty for mob lynching.

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