JUDICIAL ACCOUNTABILITY OR ILLUSION

JUDICIAL ACCOUNTABILITY OR ILLUSION

THE NATIONAL JUDICIAL COUNCIL BILL

BY PRASHANT BHUSHAN

The recent decision of the government to bring a bill to amend the

Judges Inquiry Act and provide for the constitution of a National Judicial

Council to inquire into complaints against errant judges is being perceived as

a long awaited initiative to introduce some accountability for judges of the

higher judiciary. But on examining its provisions in the light of past

experience we will see that it is designed more to create an illusion of

accountability, while in practice it will hardly change the existing status quo.

There has been a growing realization over the past many years that the

system of impeachment created by the Constitution for dealing with judicial

misbehaviour is impractical and unworkable. This is partly because, to set

the process in motion one needs to get an impeachment motion signed by

100 MPs, an impossible task, unless one already has unimpeachable

documentary evidence to prove the guilt of the judge. In most cases, that is

not possible unless some investigative body investigates the charges and

collects evidence. In Justice V. Ramaswami’s case, it was possible to do that

since the charges pertained to purchases made for the High Court and his

official residence and were audited by the accountant General’s office,

whose audit report contained the evidence necessary to frame charges

against Ramaswami. He was then tried by a committee of 3 judges appointed

by the Lok Sabha speaker, who found him guilty on many charges of

misfeasance. Despite this, he escaped removal because the then ruling party

decided to abstain from voting on his impeachment motion.

The problem of judicial accountability has been compounded by the

Supreme Court’s judgement in the Veeraswami case, in which it declared

that no judge of the High Court or the Supreme Court could be subjected to

even investigation in any Criminal offence of corruption or otherwise, unless

one obtains the prior written consent of the Chief Justice of India. This has

resulted in a situation whereby no sitting judge has been subjected to even

investigation in the last 15 years since that judgement, despite public

knowledge and complaints of widespread corruption in the judiciary. The

police does not dare approach the Chief Justice for permission to investigate,

unless they already have clincing evidence, which they cannot get unless

they investigate. It is a classic catch 22 situation which the judiciary is

obviously happy to live with.

Further, the judiciary is even insulated from public criticism by the

threat of Contempt of Court, which can be used in a very draconian manner

by the very judges towards whom the criticism is directed, as we saw in the

Arundhati Roy case. The sword of Contempt has kept the judiciary away

from searching public scrutiny, particularly within the mainstream media.

The judiciary is obviously happy to live with this situation as well.

The judiciary is even seeking to effectively remove itself from the

purview of the Right to Information Act. The Supreme Court has

recommended amending the Act to remove the jurisdiction of the Central

Information Commission over it under the Act and further that any

information interdicted by the Chief Justice on the ground of independence

of the judiciary will not be given. As if mere transparency in the functioning

of the judiciary can compromise its independence! Taking a cue from the

Supreme Court, most High Courts have not even appointed Public

Information Officers under the Act till now and many High Courts have

framed rules contrary to the Act. The Delhi High Court rules provide that no

adminstrative information which is not in the public domain will be given.

Thus, information about appointment of class 3 and 4 employees by the

High Court without any public advertisement is being denied citing this

illegal rule.

To cap it all, the Supreme Court has by an amazingly creative

interpretation of the Constitution taken over the power of appointing judges

in its own hands. The words “appointed by the government in consultation

with the Chief Justice” in the Constitution were interpreted as “appointed by

the government on the advice of the Chief Justice”!

Thus, the judiciary has effectively become a law unto itself,

unaccountable to any one by declaring itself as sui generis. And while its

accountability was being whittled away, its powers were increasing as it

moved in to occupy space vacated by a weak and corrupt executive.

It is in this background that one needs to analyse the proposed Judicial

Council bill. It seeks to amend the Judges Inquiry Act to provide for a

complaint procedure for an inquiry against erring judges. At present, this

inquiry can only be made on an impeachment motion signed by 100 MPs.

Though that is an improvement, it is the composition of the Council and its

lack of investigative powers that renders the bill a non starter. The Council

to examine complaints will consist of 5 senior judges of the Supreme Court

in complaints against Supreme Court Judges and 3 senior judges of the

Supreme Court with 2 Chief Justices of High Courts in complaints against

High Court judges. Firstly, sitting judges who are already overburdened with

judicial work will not be able to devote adequate time to this job. Secondly,

and more importantly, sitting judges would find it difficult and embarrassing

to hold their brother judges (sometimes their seniors), with whom they share

the bench every day, guilty of misdemeanors. Not impossible, but unlikely.

For any unbiased and realistic enquiry against judges, one needs a full time

body, independent of the government as well as of the judiciary, with an

investigative machinery under its control, through which it can get

complaints investigated. A view has been propogated by the judiciary that

the judiciary cannot be made accountable to any outside body, but only to

itself. Anything else they say will compromise the independence of the

judiciary. That is why they adopted an “in house proceedure” in 1997 to

inquire into complaints against judges. This also envisaged a committee of

judges to inquire into complaints. But there have hardly been any inquiries

during the last 9 years, though there have been many reports and complaints

of judicial misbehaviour. This self accountability is akin to a judge sitting to

decide his own cause, something which has been declared by the courts to be

violative of the principles of Natural justice. Independence of the judiciary

means independence from the Executive and the Legislature, but not

independence from accountability. It is a fundamental principle that every

institution must be accountable to an authority which is independent of that

institution. Yet somehow, the judiciary has propogated a view that the

judiciary can only be accountable to itself.

For all the above reasons, the proposed Judicial Council will not usher

in any real judicial accountability, though for some time, till its import is

properly understood, it may create an illusion of that. That in fact appears to

be its main purpose, judging by the statements of the Ministers and judges,

who say that this bill will go a long way to restore public confidence in the

judiciary. It might end up essentially as a confidence trick.

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