Peer review


The former Supreme Court judge, Justice Ruma Pal, speaking at the fifth Tarkunde Memorial Lecture on Thursday, delivered some very welcome reminders to the higher judiciary of their responsibility towards peer review. She reminded her audience that we hear a great deal these days about the need to preserve the independence of the judiciary; but then she examined various recent tendencies among judges that, she said, worked against the appearance of independence. “The insulation of the judiciary from executive interference in the matter of appointment and transfer of judges is now almost complete,” she argued, through actions which “strained” the Constitution “to an extent never witnessed before or after.” And yet, she said, appointments were as non-transparent; rivalries, unspoken obligations, rumours, third-hand information, personal friendships therefore made all the difference in appointments, “with disastrous consequences for litigants and the credibility of the judicial system.”

These remarks speak to a necessary reform. But Justice Pal was not done yet. She went on to list ways in which judges of the superior judiciary were failing in their duty — substantiating each with an example. They ignore injudicious conduct in other judges, using contempt as a tool to silence discussion, she said; and they are insufficiently aloof from litigants, including the executive branch.

Justice Pal’s words need to be welcomed in that they should spark off a much-needed debate. The higher judiciary is looked up to by most of India as one of the few institutions that have not been hollowed-out by time and circumstance. It is consistently at the cutting edge of responding to the social needs of the new India that liberalisation has brought into being. Yet the perception of a lack of accountability, a sense in which ranks are closed at the first sign of discussion, cannot help the institution maintain the position of unparalleled respect that it has built for itself over the past three decades. Justice Pal has correctly argued for an accountability mechanism, such as being studied by the bill now before Parliament. Till that mechanism has teeth, the self-examination of forward-looking judges can only strengthen the judiciary.



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