Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Misadventure in Accountability

The Judicial Standards and Accountability Bill must, first and foremost, be applauded for its spirit. Meant to replace the Judges Inquiry Act, the new Bill simplifies greatly the procedure for impeachment of a judge of the higher judiciary who is found to have violated norms expected of a judge.

The Bill seeks to give legal sanctity to the "Restatement of Values of Judicial Life," adopted by a full court meeting of the Supreme Court of India in 1997 and lay down grounds on which a complaint against a sitting judge maybe made and dealt with. The current system is long and laborious and if often met with political interference. Many-a-times, the judges accused of criminal activity continue in the judiciary because of the protracted process. The new bill seeks to eliminate these problems.

However, in its attempt to bring accountability to the judiciary, the Bill errs on two points. Firstly, and this is not a very strong point, the assumption that judges can sort themselves out. The final investigation into the alleged antics of a judge of the Supreme Court or a Hugh Court is to be taken by other judges themselves. In case of Supreme Court judges, it will be taken by judges who might have shared several benches with the judge in question. Can a judge be expected to remain impartial in such a situation? Would that not be against the very notion of fraternal relations between judges?

The second, and by far the most important point, is the inclusion of the Attorney-General of India in the National Judicial Oversight Committee, which will take up individual complaints. The Attorney-General is a member of the Bar and is expected to argue cases before a judge, who in turn is supposed to adjudicate without fear or bias. If the same Attorney-General who is arguing a case (on behalf of the Government, of course) also has the power to seriously harass the judge through a complaint, frivolous or otherwise, then that would constitute a serious conflict of interest and weaken the entire judicial system.

Clearly, these two problems stand in stark contrast to the noble cause with which this Bill was drafted in the first place. However, it is not too late: Parliament has the power to introduce any amendment to a Bill it deems fit, and fixing these errors should be a priority. Nobody wants to see the ignominy of a Justice accused of illegal transactions refusing to step down and then begin shifted to the Sikkim High Court (as if Sikkim does not have a right to justice). The sooner we can pass a better Bill, the better.

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