Equality before Law and Equal Protection of Laws
The Constitution of India makes provision for fundamental rights which are basic rights that every person should enjoy. These rights include Right to Equality, Right to Life and Personal Liberty, Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Profession and Trade, Freedom of Association, Freedom of Assembly, Right to constitutional remedies and so on.
The phrases “Equality before law” and “equal protection of laws” are two phrases used in Article 14, which is the Right to Equality. Let’s analyze them.
Equality before Law
The phrase means that all are equal in the eyes of the law. No one is above the law. This concept is derived from the theory of Rule of Law. According to Rule of Law, a person can only be punished for violating a law which has been laid down and nothing else.
Equality before the law means there should be no discrimination of one person from another. All should be treated equally irrespective of place of birth, gender, religion, race, caste, wealth, social status and so on.
For instance, both men and women have the right to work and bot the right to equal pay for equal work.
All persons who commit a particular crime are given the same punishment. There cannot be a distinction between a male criminal and a female one. Or a rich criminal and a poor one, if both have committed the same crime.
India is a hub of people from different walks of life. There are social inequalities and biases already that already exist in the country. Bias based on religion, caste, gender…. The Right to equality puts all persons on the same par. This right ensures everyone that the People in power will not discriminate between them. It gives an assurance that all will receive equal status and opportunities.
Equal Protection of Laws
The phrase “equal protection of laws” means that people in similar circumstances should be treated equally. Which also means, those who are not equal circumstances should not be treated equally.
For example, a poor man cannot be expected to pay the same income tax as a rich man. But persons with the same income bracket, being in similar circumstances, will pay the same tax.
All adults are equal and are punished equally. But a child who commits murder cannot be punished like an adult who commits the same crime. Since the adult and the child are not equal and should be treated unequally.
When persons in similar circumstances/equals are treated equally, and those in different circumstances/unequals are treated in an unequal manner, we strive to attain EQUITY, which is an objective much higher than equality.
Classification and Class Legislation
Absolute equality where everyone is treated in an identical manner amounts to turning a blind eye to the social and educational inequalities that already exist in the society. Right to equality does not mean that everyone is treated in an equal manner having no regard to their situations. In fact, if everyone is treated in an identical manner, it violates the right to equality. So, to find out which two groups should be treated unequally, a classification can be made. Any classification made should be made on a reasonable basis.
For example, a classification between a classification between teachers who are trained and others who are not. This classification is made to make applicable any monetary benefits on trained teachers. A classification of physically challenged persons and persons who are not physically handicapped which is made to confer certain rights on them.
Classification should not amount to a class legislation. Class legislation means a law that is applicable only to certain persons or class of persons. For example, if a law makes the classification based only on a class of persons who belong to a particular religion or race or gender will be unreasonable and violate the right to equality.
The legislature can treat two sets of persons differently if their classification is made on a reasonable basis. A reasonable classification must be founded on intelligible differentia. Which means that persons or things that are grouped together make a well-defined, distinct class and can be distinguished from those that are left out of the group. Further, this basis of classification should have a rational nexus to the object sought to be achieved by the legislation in question.
For example, the maternity benefit law applies to working women on the way to maternity, not others. Because the object of the maternity benefit law is to give certain privileges only to women who become mothers at the time of their need. Hence, the classification of women and men is based on an intelligible differentia.
Another illustration is of tax laws. Classifications may be made for the purpose of taxing or not taxing certain classes of property. Charities, libraries are exempted from certain tax whereas other properties are not.
To conclude, let’s sum up.
- Equality before law means absence of discrimination
- Equal protection of laws means equal treatment of persons in equal circumstances.
- To attain equity, reasonable classification is permitted.
- Reasonable classification should not amount to class legislation.