LAW RESOURCE INDIA

Sweeping bill to rein in errant judges – Centre proposes complaints panels, addresses ‘uncle judge’ problem

Posted in JUDICIAL REFORMS, JUDICIARY, JUSTICE by NNLRJ INDIA on December 2, 2010

New Delhi, Dec. 1: The government today repealed the Judges Inquiry Act, 1968, blamed for much of the ills plaguing the judiciary, and introduced a sweeping new bill in the Lok Sabha that provides for a complaints mechanism and punishment to deal with errant judges.

The bill proposes complaints scrutiny panels in the high courts and the Supreme Court. The panels will be headed by a former chief justice and include two judges nominated by the chief justice of each court. They will enjoy all powers of a civil court.

Complaints will be scrutinised at the preliminary stage by the panels, which can either reject them or forward them to a National Judicial Oversight Committee for an inquiry.

The five-member oversight committee — it will be made up of a retired Chief Justice of India, a Supreme Court judge, a high court chief justice, the attorney-general and an eminent member nominated by the President — will investigate the complaints and, if it is proved, take action.

Errant judges can be reprimanded or have their work taken away. In the worst-case scenario, the committee could also advise the government to initiate a case against the judge or initiate impeachment proceedings. At present, the only punishment prescribed for a judge is impeachment.

A false complaint could, however, draw a jail term of up to five years and a fine of up to Rs 5 lakh.

All complaints will go first to the committee, which will send them to the scrutiny panel for a preliminary investigation within three months. It will deal with any complaints against the Chief Justice of India on its own.

If the scrutiny panel feels a complaint should be looked into, the complaint will go to an investigation panel of the oversight committee. The inquiry will be in-camera —breach of confidentiality will draw a jail term of up to one month and a fine of up to Rs 500 — and if necessary, ex-parte, without the judge concerned.

The probe has to be completed within six months.

The proposed new law, deferring to public clamour for more accountability and transparency in the judiciary, also has a long list of dos and don’ts for judges of the superior judiciary.

For instance, judges will have to file their tax return statements within three months of taking office and every year thereafter by March 31. The statements will also have to list the assets and liabilities of spouses and dependent children. The Chief Justice of India will file his return statement with the President.

Judges who can’t function at their optimum because of ailments but won’t come clean will also have less room for manoeuvre. They will be subject to medical examination by a board, if accused of not being able to perform their duties, and the report sent to Parliament to do the needful.

Twitter and social networking sites are out for judges, if the sub-text of the bill is examined. They can only speak through their judgments or at judicial fora or academic events. Judges will have to hold their silence on political issues, pending cases and their own judgments.

The bill also seeks to address the “uncle judge” phenomena, barring immediate family members or close relatives from practising in a judge’s court. These include the judge’s spouse, brothers and sisters of the judge or his spouse, brothers and sisters of either parent of the judge, any lineal ascendant or descendant of either the judge or his spouse.

The bill, titled the Judicial Standards and Accountability Bill, 2010, is the UPA government’s second attempt at ensuring greater judicial accountability. The first attempt fell through amid an acrimonious debate over why the Chief Justice of India should be exempt from filing tax returns.

The new bill also expands the meaning of misbehaviour — if proved, a ground for impeachment of a judge — to include conduct which brings judiciary to disrepute, abuse of office, corruption, offence involving moral turpitude, failure to declare assets and liabilities or giving wrong information about it.

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