Senior advocate Fali S. Nariman appearing in cases before the Supreme Court where his son is a judge has revived an old debate regarding the appropriateness of such appearances
In 1967, when U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed the son of U.S. Supreme Court Judge Tom C. Clark as the Attorney General, Clark promptly resigned from his post. This was because an Attorney General will have to make frequent appearance in the court in which his father will be one of the judges adorning the bench and in that Supreme Court all the nine judges sit together. But in India that has not been the case. Right now the matter regarding the appropriateness of a lawyer appearing in a court in which his near relative is a judge has gained significance in the context of Fali S. Nariman, a leading senior advocate of the Supreme Court, continuing to appear in cases before the Supreme Court in which his son Rohinton F. Nariman has become a Judge since July 2014. While some criticism was aired regarding this in public, Mr. Nariman dismissed complaints maintaining that there is no legal bar for such appearance and said that everyone is equal before the law.
What rules say
Until 1961, in India, there were instances in which lawyers appeared in the same court over which their relatives were presiding. But after the Advocates Act, 1961 empowered the Bar Council of India to frame rules on the matter, such incidences have become rare. Under Rule 6 of the norms established by the Bar Council, no lawyer can practise in a court where any of his relatives functions as a judge. The list of such relatives included his/her father, grandfather, son, grandson, uncle, brother, nephew, stepbrother, husband, wife, daughter, sister, aunt, niece, father-in-law, brother-in-law or sister-in-law. However, there have been controversies as to whether the term ‘court’ mentioned in this Rule refers only to the court of that particular judge or the entire court where the relative works.
During the early 1980s, this rule came up for interpretation before the Karnataka High Court. Pramila Nesargi, a woman advocate who got married to Nesargi, a Karnataka High Court Judge who had lost his wife at that time, appeared before the court of Justice P.P. Bopanna. She was not a senior advocate at that time and as her name did not find mention in the vakalat filed in that case, the Judge directed her to file a vakalat to represent her client. The next day when her name appeared in the cause list, the judge who heard her case refused to allow her to appear before any judge in the Karnataka High Court.
He ruled: “The Bar Council prohibits a lawyer from appearing in a Court where a close relative works as a judge. While the term ‘court’ does not specifically refer to all the courts in a particular High Court, we should be strict in respect of a wife. A wife has an intimate relationship with her husband. Many matters discussed among judges would reach her ears. When a woman who has access to confidential matters in respect of a Court is allowed to practise in the same Court as a lawyer, it can spell danger.”
” Advocates Act, 1961 empowered the Bar Council of India to frame rules so that no lawyer can practise in a court where any of his relatives functions as a judge. ”
Subsequently, the matter was raised before the Supreme Court which ordered notice to the Bar Council. But the case was not taken to its logical end and the matter became infructuous as the counsel involved became a senior advocate and the Judge concerned was superannuated. Yet the controversy over the interpretation of the rule still continues to haunt the courts. When Justice P. Balakrishna Iyer became a judge of the Madras High Court, his son advocate P. B. Krishnamoorthy shifted his practice to another State. There was also a strange practice adopted by a lawyer in the early 1970s. The said lawyer used to sign hundreds of memos of appearances in bail applications so that those matters will not go before his father-in-law judge, who was known to be strict regarding granting of bail.
When Justice V. R. Krishna Iyer became a Supreme Court judge, his son who was a lawyer as well, chose not to practise in any court in India opting for private employment. Justice V. Sivaraman Nair of the Kerala High Court had worked as a junior of Justice Krishna Iyer. But as soon as his daughter and daughter-in-law started practising in the Kerala High Court, he requested the President of India to transfer him to another State.
Justice Leila Seth, a former Chief Justice of Himachal Pradesh writing in her autobiography recalled her experience in the Patna High Court regarding the two kinds of ‘practice’ the Bar had adopted.
She wrote: “I heard people talking about ‘Uncle Practice’ and ‘Lal Jhanda’. I wondered what all this was about. I learnt that, since a son was not permitted practice in his father’s court, if you did not want the matter to be heard by that court, you briefed the son and thus stopped the matter from going before the father; you had put out a warning ’Red Flag’. This misuse of a rule that had been incorporated to prevent partisan decisions was apparently quite prevalent, and some young lawyers even managed to make a living out of it. It was also rumoured that certain judges favoured the sons of their brother judges, and so the ‘Uncle Practice’ thrived.”
In S. P. Gupta’s case (1981) dealing with the judges’ transfer issue relating to close relations taking undue advantage of a sitting judge, the following way out was suggested to avoid embarrassment: “We have to take into account the advice given by the CJI in one of the seminars that where close relations of a Judge or the Chief Justice practise in the same court and are likely to gain undue advantage, the concerned judge should himself, in obedience to the keen sense of justice which every Judge possesses opt to be transferred to some other High Court.”
In 1997, all the judges of the Supreme Court assembled under the Chairmanship of Chief Justice J. S. Verma and adopted a resolution on ‘The Values in Judicial Life’. That resolution stated that a judge should prohibit a close relative of his from appearing in his court. It also stated that no relative of his should practise law while staying in the Judge’s house. Markandeya Katju, in his judgment in Raja Khan’s case, sounded a warning on the ills of kith and kin being allowed to practise in the same court as their relatives. He said: “Some Judges have their kith and kin practising in the same court, and within a few years of starting practice the sons or relations of the Judge become multimillionaires, have huge bank balances, luxurious cars, huge houses and are enjoying a luxurious life. This is a far cry from the days when the sons and other relatives of Judges could derive no benefit from their relationship and had to struggle at the bar like any other lawyer.”
What is the way out?
When Justice R. M. Lodha took over as the Chief Justice of India, some presspersons raised a question as to whether it was not possible to prohibit relatives of a judge from practising as lawyers in the same Court. He replied that it was up to the Bar to find a solution to the problem. He also dismissed a public interest litigation filed by advocate M. L. Sharma seeking a ban on the relatives of judges practising in the same courts.
With the controversy reviving in the context of Mr. Nariman appearing in the court where his son is a judge, the Bar Council of India must be called upon to suitably amend relevant rules and uphold the faith of the common man in the judiciary.
(K. Chandru is a retired Judge of the Madras High Court.)
>>There was a reference to Justice A.S. Bopanna in the Comment page article – “Father, son and the holy Court” (Oct. 24, 2014). It should have been Justice P.P. Bopanna.
The judiciary has been praised by some for its role in exposing corruption in politics, while others point to the defective method of selection of judges through the collegium system to criticise it. To prevent further easy public slapping of the judiciary, we must now finalise the method of appointment.
The suggested pattern of a judicial appointments commission broadly fills the void. It is headed by the chief justice of India (CJI) and includes the next two senior judges, the Union law minister, two eminent persons (emphasis added) to be selected by the prime minister, the CJI and the leader of opposition in the Lok Sabha. Some rightly feel that “eminent persons” should be substituted with “eminent jurists”, because “eminence” by itself is too vague. Instead, “eminent jurist” would provide a larger field of academics, authors, outstanding lawyers (no longer practising, of course). The fear that the presence of a lay person would interfere with the independence of the judiciary is misplaced. As the Judicial Commission of New South Wales Annual Report said: “Judicial independence is not some kind of industrial benefit generously extended to judges and magistrates, it is [the] fundamental principle of our society’s constitutional arrangements.”
The provision with regard to the appointment of high court judges, however, states, unacceptably, that the JAC is only required to elicit (emphasis added) the views of the governor, chief minister and the chief justice of the high court. I can hardly see any relevance of eliciting the view of the chief minister separately from the governor. I, however, take strong objection to reducing the position of the chief justice of a high court to merely eliciting his view. The advice of the chief justice of a high court as to the suitability or otherwise of a person to be appointed a judge of a high court should normally be accepted.
Reportedly, though technically the collegium is being sought to be abolished, the CJI has asked chief justices of the high courts to consult their colleagues, even junior ones, as far as possible. But this suggestion may only be observed in the breach. I remember that in 1977, the Janata government’s informal suggestion that the chief justices of the high courts consult two senior colleagues was observed more in the breach. It was only when the collegium system was established that the chief justices of the high courts had no option but to consult their colleagues.
However, this did not mean that the government has accepted the collegium’s recommendation in all cases. In 1985, the chief justice of a high court and his two senior-most colleagues recommended four names, with the clarification that they must be appointed in the order in which the names were sent. This was done to prevent the government from picking and choosing on the specious argument that some names had not yet been cleared by the CBI and the appointments might be delayed, while those lower down the list could be appointed immediately. This was opposed by the chief justice, and the law ministry was so affronted that the government did not appoint any judge during his tenure. Afterwards, too, the law ministry first appointed new names and only later appointed those recommended by the earlier collegium. So the government’s intervention can only be checked by a strong judiciary. It is for this reason that I have reservations on doing away with collegiums entirely. The collegium system is welcome inasmuch as it constitutes a wider circle of three judges, rather than leaving it solely to the chief justice of the high court. The CJI’s advice to consult two more judges is welcome. I see no reason to abolish the collegium system at the high court level (which, after all, is only recommendatory). The appointments are now to be made under the provisions of the proposed JAC.
I am amazed that, so far, a serious self-inflected injury is being overlooked — that is, appointing the chief justices of high courts outside their parent court. I have never understood the logic of transferring the senior-most judge, whose turn to head the court in which he has worked for almost 10 to 15 years, and with the functioning and lower judiciary of which he is most familiar, has come. To transfer him to a new court for a period of one or two years or even less, to which he is a total stranger and most likely unaware of the names of his colleagues, is strange. At present, one has the embarrassing spectacle of a chief justice being transferred to a state where he cannot even understand the language. The chief justice of a high court should be the senior-most judge of the same court. This alone will lend strength and dignity to the high courts.
Section 8 of the new bill contemplates asking the state and Central governments to send recommendations for the selection of judges. I find this to be a frontal attack on the judiciary. After a JAC is constituted, the state or Central governments have no locus standi and should be outsiders in the process of selection. I agree though that the JAC should make public the names it is contemplating for appointments to high courts and the Supreme Court. This will make the process more open and participatory, and also negate the charge of secret manoeuvring in the appointment of judges.
The writer is a former chief justice of the Delhi High Court
The clamour against the courts has been continuous. Initially, there was talk of a “committed” judiciary. Then, of judicial accountability and transparency. And so on. The latest is — why should judges choose judges? Hence, the effort to replace the collegium by a Judicial Appointments Commission (JAC). The bill has already been passed in both Houses of Parliament. Is it the right way to do so? I think, No.
Let us see what is happening in the country. Who selects ministers? The prime minister and chief ministers. Who selects the generals? The generals. Who selects army commanders? The army. Who selects government servants? The government.
Why then do we want a different method of selection for the judiciary? Why should the judiciary not be allowed to select judges? Is it an effort to destroy the one institution that has performed and exposed scams and scandals like Coalgate and 2G?
The founding fathers created a judicial pyramid. The subordinate courts were the base. Then came district courts. The high courts followed at the state level. The Supreme Court was placed at the apex. They also laid down the procedure for the selection and appointment of judges. The selection and appointments of the officers in the subordinate and district courts are made in accordance with the rules framed and promulgated by the government in accordance with the Constitution. The “control” vests in the high court. In so far as appointments to the higher judiciary are concerned,
the matter was considered by the Supreme Court in the second and third judges’ cases.
The court’s dictum has been followed. Judges to the high courts and Supreme Court have been selected by collegiums for some time now. The scope for interference by the political executive has been reduced to a minimum. Consequently, criticism from different quarters is understandable. But can the JAC improve the quality of judges?
No system of selection can be absolutely perfect. Institutions run by human beings will reflect human frailties. A fact that deserves mention is that the Constitution itself provides for Union and state public service commissions to make selections to the various services. The commissions have been in place for a long time. Has their performance been beyond reproach or even satisfactory? Have these commissions not been described as “personal” service commissions? The kind of eminent persons proposed to be included in the JAC are usually members of the state and Union public service commissions too. Yet, what do we have? Petitions in courts alleging all kinds of malpractices. Still more, states have moved petitions, prosecuted members or chairpersons of the commissions for different irregularities and even offences. Would a similar commission for judicial appointments change everything for the better? Looks unlikely.
Second, the state is the single-largest litigant in the country. Should a litigant have any say whatsoever in the choice of judges?
Third, in a democracy, independence of the judiciary is of paramount importance. A fearless and independent judiciary is a basic feature of the Constitution of India. It is a part of the “basic structure” and should not be sacrificed at the altar of the executive’s anxiety or ego. Legally speaking, the validity of the proposed bill is extremely doubtful.
The members of the collegium also monitor the performance of judges and lawyers who have to be considered for appointment to the high courts or the Supreme Court. They examine judgments of the persons who are considered for elevation. So far as the JAC is concerned, the majority shall not have that opportunity. They will necessarily have to depend upon hearsay evidence. This will be totally improper.
It is alleged that the collegium does not have a mechanism to “verify the character and antecedents of judges.” I think, it is not so. The court and/ or the chief justice can always ask the concerned agencies to do the needful. In certain cases, it has been actually done. I think the fear is wholly unfounded.
It has been suggested that judges sometimes indulge in mutual give-and-take. As a result, some people who should not have become judges at all have been elevated to still higher positions and courts, it is argued. Assuming this to be correct, can anybody claim we are totally impervious to all kinds of political and social influences or pressures? Has it never happened that, at the highest level, files are held up till the name of a particular person is cleared by the collegium?
But is the JAC the solution? No!
A rare exception under the collegium system has the potential of becoming the rule when the final word is left to the executive. Are the series of scams and scandals that have taken place recently in India not enough to caution us about the state of political morality? The judiciary is one institution in India that has performed and delivered. We can tinker with it only at our own peril.
The writer is former chief justice,
Kerala High Court
In this Idea Exchange moderated by Senior Editor (Legal Affairs) Maneesh Chhibber, Law Commission of India Chairman Justice A P Shah says most judges don’t believe the collegium system works and argues for a fixed tenure for CJI. This Idea Exchange took place before Parliament approved the new Bill for selection of judges
Maneesh Chhibber: Law Commission Chairperson Justice A P Shah submitted a report to the government on the collegium system. Incidentally, he is also one of the prominent victims of the collegium system.
Justice A P Shah: I read Fali Nariman’s article in The Indian Express. It seems he has suggested that the collegium system should be revamped. In my opinion, the collegium system is not a democratic institution; there are no checks and balances in it. If you let the same system continue without any meaningful voice to the executing civil society, even if you make it a little more transparent and a criterion is laid out, it may not improve the system itself.
I have been working on it for the past several days along with some of my colleagues and some people from outside. The government has not asked us to make a report, it is our initiative. At the Law Commission, we thought it’s a very important policy decision — whether you are going to have a judicial appointments commission to replace the present collegium system. It’s the Law Commission’s responsibility to make recommendations in that direction, but it’s not very clear whether it should go as a report or a consultation paper…
You will recall that there was a UPA Bill to bring the retirement age of high court judges on a par with that of the Supreme Court judges. The BJP opposed the Bill, and it is still pending. The only reason given in the Constituent Assembly debates was that high court judges may not opt for the Supreme Court if the retirement age is the same, because that is a kind of temptation to go to the Supreme Court, there is an additional three-year tenure, which I don’t think works today. There are two distinct advantages if it is brought on a par. First, the practice of lobbying and sycophancy, developed in recent times, will stop. Also, there will not be much heartburn because a person continues as an HC judge till 65. The second advantage is that you will be able to select judges at a young age. There is no rule but an unwritten convention that a person below the age of 45 will not be appointed in the HC, and a person below 55 will not be appointed in the SC. Look at the consequences: We are not getting good talent in the HC because once they cross 45, they would be more entrenched in practice. This seniority should really go.
Today, the Supreme Court is packed with (former high court) chief justices who are also the senior-most; there is no search for good talent. Once it is on a par, perhaps you would be able to select judges at a young age and they will continue on the bench for a longer period of time. In almost all countries, judges at the apex court have a long tenure — 10 years is the minimum, it should be 10-15 years. According to me, this (age bar) is rather arbitrary and in the committee meeting, everybody was almost unanimous that seniority should not be the criterion, you need to bring in young people.
And the last point is the fixed tenure of the chief justice. We are working on that. Till 2022, no chief justice will get a tenure of more than a year; the present Chief Justice gets only four-five months. My logic is that it should be five years, because the prime minister gets a five-year tenure, Parliament gets five years, so the chief justice should also get five years. But it may be less — three or two years.
The way the Supreme Court works is very different from what was contemplated by the law framers. One of the reasons there is no embargo against judges taking up post-retirement assignments in the government was because in the Constituent Assembly Dr B R Ambedkar had said that the government has only 5 per cent litigation, and since the government is not a major litigant, why prevent retired judges from accepting post-retirement assignments? That logic is no longer relevant because 60 per cent of the litigations are by the government. So, there may not be a complete bar, but a cooling-off period is very necessary. It could be one or two years, but there should be a cooling-off period.
Maneesh Chhibber: Don’t you think that the government or politicians are trying to use this clamour against the judiciary as an excuse to undo the collegium system brought in by the Supreme Court?
The UPA Bill (which was not passed) said that the Judicial Appointments Commission should have three judges and three non-judges, but there was an attempt to have an amendment, to have a seventh member. And the seventh member, as per the amendment, was to be a non-judge. So virtually, judges will be in a minority. One suggestion was that there should be two non-judges and an eminent person should be given a veto. If both of them decide to oppose the appointment, then it should not be made. There is a fear (that this is a move to undo the collegium system), and I can’t say no to that.
Arun sukumar: Would the situation be any different if the collegium decisions were to be made public under RTI?
Under RTI, the questions that come up relate to justification for making an appointment or if somebody is being overlooked, or why a particular candidate was chosen for the high court. But the reasons are not given. So how is RTI going to help? RTI’s objective is to bring transparency, but RTI itself is not sufficient. Transparency would come only if you make it known that there are vacancies, you get nominations from the stakeholders concerned, have mandatory consultations with the high courts, state governments and maybe the Bar, and then declare the names before they are finalised, so that people know. I’m not in favour of interviews in public or any such American system, but we must bring in some sort of transparency, and that can’t be achieved by an RTI application.
Maneesh Chhibber: At the meeting which the government called to discuss the Judicial Appointments Commission, one of the biggest concerns was that whatever was brought in, the JAC should meet the standard set by the judiciary. What do you think is that standard?
Upendra Baxi suggested that you prepare a Bill and make a presidential reference to the Supreme Court. Let the Supreme Court examine it, the way it has done in the past. This was a good idea according to me, but it was felt, and may be justifiably, that it takes time. The other was what Nariman suggested. I really liked the idea — have a dialogue, let the judiciary participate in that dialogue. That’s a great idea — let them at least listen to voices of people or other stakeholders. My fear is that if the judiciary is either equal or in a minority, this Bill will become (legally) vulnerable.
Dilip Bobb: You have been consulting colleagues in the judiciary. What is their reaction to your suggestions, including the cooling-off period?
The problem is that most judges — till they are in the collegium — defend the collegium system because it is very difficult for a serving judge (to criticise it). Nobody honestly believes that this system works well. Many retired judges, barring the exception of former chief justice (Altamas) Kabir and a few others, believe that this system has not worked.
About cooling-off period, what is bad about post-retirement assignments is that for one post, there are 10 aspirants. This leads to unfortunate developments.
Seema Chishti: You were talking of an eminent person being selected. Isn’t that problematic?
The problem is manifold. First, the Constitution uses the words ‘distinguished jurist’. Not a single person was appointed in the past 60 years in that category. During the debates in the Constituent Assembly, they gave the example of Felix Frankfurter. He was a great professor and was taken from a university to the American Supreme Court; he was not a practising lawyer. What they really had in mind was an academic. If I look at the Indian scenario, Prof N R Madhava Menon or Prof Upendra Baxi would have been brought to the Supreme Court in that category. But that jurist can be anyone. Nariman has contributed greatly in the legal frame, he has written several books, perhaps in that sense he would know.
The absence of a non-legal person would give a sense of incompleteness; it should not be a closed-door affair for the legal community, there should be an eminent person, for instance, our past president A P J Abdul Kalam. There are many such eminent persons, who can be picked by the PM, Leader of Opposition and the Chief Justice of India.
Vandita Mishra: The debate is also about the executive versus the judiciary, which is an age-old tussle. Do you see the present as a special moment where there is a confrontation developing between the executive and the judiciary? Is the judiciary more on the backfoot and the executive more aggressive than in the past?
The real issue is, who will have the last word, who will be the custodian of the Constitution. The Supreme Court has said that the court will have the last word in any amendment. But then coming to narrower issues of appointments, who will have the last word? Judges say that judiciary will have the last word.
Vandita Mishra: The executive is more aggressive because of its majority. What about the judiciary, what is the special moment that the judiciary finds itself in today?
Very broadly, the judiciary is entering into several areas where it should not be. There is a tremendous expanse of the judiciary’s powers and then with the PILs, it is armed with so many weapons. It is becoming very powerful. With that, the scrutiny is becoming extremely focused by the media and several other bodies. One significant development was the decision of the collegium on Karnataka judges.
Rakesh Sinha: As the law minister in A B Vajpayee’s government, Arun Jaitley had moved an amendment for scrapping the collegium.
You are right. There were seven-eight proposals after 1993. And they gave different combinations. In some proposals, even the legislature was included, apart from the executive. In some proposals, it was completely judge-dominant. We are looking into all the proposals.
Maneesh Chhibber: At the meeting called by the government, one got the feeling that the general consensus was that the government should come up with a proposal, have at least one more round of talks with the stakeholders. But it appears the Cabinet is going to clear the Bill.
I distinctly remember Anil Diwan saying that, ‘Instead of holding such meetings, why don’t you draft a Bill and then come to us?’. That is a good idea.
Seema Chishti: Regarding the recent instance of the Delhi Assembly case being heard by the Constitution bench, should the court get into this at all? In an earlier instance, the court had said that the Jharkhand Assembly should have a session at 11.30 am.
I don’t want to make any comment on that. The argument being made is that it is clear the Delhi government is not going to be constituted (any time soon). But the Constitution gives power to the executive that the suspension can continue up to one year. To what extent is judicial review permissible is a debatable issue.
P Vaidyanathan Iyer: We had Iqbal Chagla as our guest in Mumbai and he said that in the ’60s and ’70s, the Bar used to be very strong. At times it took up issues of corruption and stalled appointments. Do you think that today, there is nothing that the Bar stands up for?
A recent example is P D Dinakaran’s case — the Bar took up that case. I have seen lawyers acting as some sort of vigilance on wrong appointments. But their number is on the decline. The Bar should be more alert.
Vandita Mishra: What is your view on the mechanism of fast-track courts (for legislators)?
Let me tell you about the Law Commission’s report. The Commission felt that several previous committees disqualified a person if he was facing a serious criminal charge, punishable with five or more years in jail. The debate is, how can you expel a person when he is merely facing a charge; there is no determination. And there is misuse of this provision. Criminalisation of politics is a very serious issue. So if you believe that lawbreakers should not be lawmakers, then we need to have a system where we keep such people out. We went by the reasoning of the Supreme Court judgment in the CVC case that it is protecting institutional integrity.
There is a difference between filing a chargesheet and framing of a charge. We suggested three safeguards.
First, the charge should be framed at least one year prior to the elections. Second, such disqualification should not continue beyond six years. If within six years a person’s case is not decided, he or she should be allowed (to continue). Then we realised what happens if the charge is framed within one year and the person gets elected. Or what happens if the charge is framed after he is elected. In that context, we decided that the case should be decided within one year.
Vandita Mishra: So legislators should be singled out for fast-track, time-bound trial.
It should be done. That’s a deterrent.
Vandita Mishra: But some people would say that rapists should be singled out, not legislators.
In the case of rapists, it is already happening.
Aneesha Mathur: In your recent report you have mentioned fast-tracking, but you have also said that there may be a trade-off between the quality and quantity of judgments.
Most judges write bad judgments. It should be properly administered justice and in the name of fast-tracking you should not be affecting the quality.
Rakesh Sinha: A lower court judge in Madhya Pradesh recently wrote to the Chief Justice of India saying a high court judge was exploiting her and that she was forced to resign.
It is a very serious complaint and if it is found true prima facie on inquiry, then the logical step would be to withdraw the judicial person, and initiate impeachment proceedings.
Transcribed by Vandana Kalra & Debesh Banerjee
This expose is by Justice Markandey Katju, who was chief justice of Madras high court before becoming a Supreme Court judge. He is now chairman of the Press Council of India.
There was an additional judge of the Madras high court against whom there were several allegations of corruption. He had been directly appointed as a district judge in Tamil Nadu, and during his career as district judge there were as many as eight adverse entries against him recorded by various portfolio judges of the Madras high court. But one acting chief justice of Madras high court by a single stroke of his pen deleted all those adverse entries, and consequently he became an additional judge of the high court, and he was in that post when I came as chief justice of Madras high court in November 2004.
That judge had the solid support of a very important political leader of Tamil Nadu. I was told that this was because while a district judge he had granted bail to that political leader.
Since I was getting many reports about his corruption, I requested the Chief Justice of India, Justice RC Lahoti, to get a secret IB inquiry made about him. A few weeks thereafter, while I was in Chennai, I received a call from the secretary of the CJI saying that Justice Lahoti wanted to talk to me. The CJI then came on the line and said that what I had complained about had been found true. Evidently the IB had found enough material about the judge’s corruption.
Since the two-year term as additional judge of that person was coming to an end, I assumed he would be discontinued as a judge of the high court in view of the IB report. However, what actually happened was that he got another one year’s appointment as an additional judge, though six other additional judges who had been appointed with him were confirmed and made permanent judges of the high court.
I later learned how this happened. The Supreme Court collegium consists of five most senior judges for recommending names for appointment as a Supreme Court judge, and three most senior judges for dealing with high courts.
The three most senior judges in the Supreme Court at that time were the Chief Justice of India, Justice Lahoti, Justice YK Sabharwal, and Justice Ruma Pal. This Supreme Court collegium recommended that in view of the adverse IB report the judge should be discontinued as a high court judge after his two-year term was over, and this recommendation was sent to the central government.
The UPA government was at the Centre at that time. Congress was no doubt the largest party in this alliance, but it did not have a majority in Lok Sabha, and was dependent on the support of its allies. One such ally was the party in Tamil Nadu which was backing this corrupt judge. On coming to know of the recommendation of the three-judge Supreme Court collegium they strongly objected to it.
The information I got was that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was at that time leaving for New York to attend the UN general assembly session. At the Delhi airport, he was told by ministers of the Tamil Nadu party that by the time he returned from New York his government would have fallen as their party would withdraw support to the UPA (for not continuing that additional judge).
On hearing this, Singh panicked, but he was told by a senior Congress minister not to worry, and that he would manage everything. That minister then went to Justice Lahoti and told him there would be a crisis if that additional judge was discontinued. On hearing this, Justice Lahoti sent a letter to the government of India to give another term of one year as additional judge to that corrupt judge, (I wonder whether he consulted his two Supreme Court collegium members ), and it was in these circumstances this corrupt judge was given another one-year term as additional judge (while his six batch mates as additional judges were confirmed as permanent Judges).
The additional judge was later given another term as additional judge by the new CJI Justice Sabharwal, and then confirmed as a permanent judge by the next CJI Justice KG Balakrishnan, but transferred to another high court.
I have related all this to show how the system actually works, whatever it is in theory. In fact, in view of the adverse IB report the judge should not even have been allowed to continue as additional judge.
Sarosh Homi Kapadia
Profile: Chief Justice of India. In his long legal career, he has served as a lawyer at Bombay Bar, a Bombay High Court Judge, a Special Court Judge, Uttaranchal Chief Justice, Judge Supreme Court
- He is one of the finest judges and administrators
- He has redefined judgeship
A judge, by virtue of his chosen profession, chooses to become an ascetic, distant from the society he lives in, yet immersed in it so deep that he is confronted with the rawness of its existential struggle every day. Chief Justice of India SH Kapadia is a person who understands it too well.
“A judge must inevitably choose to be a little aloof and isolated from the community at large. He should not be in contact with lawyers, individuals or political parties, their leaders or ministers unless it be on purely social occasions,’’ Kapadia said while delivering the MC Setalvad Memorial lecture on Judicial ethics in April 2011.
Since taking over as the Chief Justice on May 12, 2010, Kapadia has worked tirelessly to restore the diminishing dignity and credibility of the Supreme Court as the final forum for justice seekers. With a single stroke of the pen, he stopped reckless mining in Bellary. He disqualified the crucial appointment of Central Vigilance Commissioner (CVC) reminding the prime minister and his government that processes must stand the test of integrity. In the Vodafone case, Kapadia pointed out that laws are not open to unduly liberal interpretations. A corporate lawyer said that the Vodafone judgement reinforced to the world the independence of the country’s judiciary. In a few days a Constitution Bench headed by Kapadia will decide on the Presidential Reference made to it after the SC quashed 122 telecom licences and asked the government to conduct auctions to allocate natural resources. He is also expected to frame guidelines for the media on reporting on matters that are being heard in court.
Chief Justice Kapadia will be remembered for some of the landmark judgements he delivered. And the way he lived as a judge will never be forgotten. It can only be called exemplary. In a now famous and widely quoted letter that he wrote to former Justice VR Krishna Iyer, Kapadia said: “I come from a poor family. I started my career as a class IV employee and the only asset I possess is integrity…’’
The destiny of Sarosh Homi Kapadia was uncertain when he was born on September 29, 1947 in a nation that came into existence barely six weeks before him. Not many people in the world who watched the birth of India gave it a chance as a democracy. The odds were stacked against Kapadia at birth because unlike the illustrious Parsis of Bombay, his father had grown up in a Surat orphanage and had worked as a lowly defense clerk. His mother Katy was a homemaker. The family could barely make ends meet but that did not weaken their robust values.
“My father taught me not to accept obligations from anyone, and my mother taught me the ethical morality of life,’’ Kapadia recalled at a Bombay Parsi Panchayet felicitation when he became CJI. Young Sarosh, however, had decided that he would make his own destiny. He wanted to become a judge and nothing else.
At the felicitation, Panchayet trustee Khojeste Mistree talked about his student days. Kapadia would walk down Narayan Dhabolkar Road in Mumbai, past the Rocky Hill flats, where a number of judges lived, and dream that one day he would progress from being an advocate to becoming a judge and have the honour of living in those very same salubrious surroundings, Parsi Khabar, an online community web site, reported Mistree as saying. Many years later, when Kapadia became a judge at the Bombay High Court, he always sat in court room number three on the ground floor, which perplexed many because as judges rose in seniority they also moved up the courthouse building. Kapadia revealed the reason why he was fond of the room when he was invited to tea at the Bar just before taking over as the Chief Justice of the Uttaranchal High Court in 2003. Early in his career as a low-grade employee, he used to end up at the Fountain area near the court for work. He didn’t have anywhere to go to spend his lunch break. For three years lunch often used to be a small cone of roasted chana (gram) and courtroom number three was the place to relax because it let in good breeze. A lawyer in Mumbai who was present says that Kapadia recalled how his interest in law was fuelled by the sessions in that courtroom.
Kapadia began his career as a grade four employee with Behramjee Jeejeebhoy where his main job was to deliver case briefs to lawyers. Behramjee Jeejeebhoy was the owner of seven villages in Bombay and had a lot of land revenue as well as a number of land-related disputes to settle. Those cases were handled by Gagrat and Company where a young lawyer, Ratnakar D Sulakhe, used to work.
“Sarosh used to come very regularly to our offices. That is how I first met him. He had a keen interest in law and I encouraged him to take it up,’’ remembers Sulakhe, who is now legal consultant with the Godrej group. Kapadia studied law and enrolled at the bar. By that time he had a keen grasp of issues related to land and revenue and began taking up such cases. As a junior lawyer, he quickly gained a reputation for his preparation and ability to cite authority while arguing. Kapadia then joined Feroze Damania, a feisty labour lawyer reputed to be partial to poor and marginalised people.
In 1982, Kapadia argued a case for people living in Ghatkopar, a suburb in Mumbai. The area was formerly salt pans and fell under the control of the Salt Commissioner. The commissioner had ordered summary eviction of about 3,000 tenements. Kapadia fought the case which resulted in a landmark judgement laying down the principle that governments cannot invoke summary eviction laws to throw out people when there is a genuine dispute on the title. “It was not about money. He was genuinely interested in the welfare of marginalised people,’’ a colleague who worked with him at Damania’s offices told Forbes India. He did not wish to be named.
The colleague says, at the time Kapadia became interested in Buddhist and Hindu philosophies, especially in the teachings of Ramana Maharishi, Swami Vivekananda and Ramakrishna Paramahansa. Later he became a frequent visitor to Belur Math on the banks of the Hoogly in Kolkata. A monk at the Math says he learnt meditation techniques. He has read everything about Ramakrishna and also what Swami Vivekananda wrote. Kapadia’s worldview is highly influenced by Indian thinkers but is also tempered by the observed realities of the modern world. It has also shaped his thinking as a judge who believes in continuous learning.
“What we need today in India as far as the judges are concerned is a scholastic living,” Kapadia said in December 2008. Delivering the JK Mathur memorial lecture in Lucknow, Kapadia went on to define the context of modern day justice and the legal profession. In that speech he said how important it was for judges to understand the various concepts in different fields, including economics and accountancy. Kapadia himself is a qualified accountant and has vast knowledge of economics. That came in handy in a case where Orissa’s tribals were pitted against a miner.
There were no jobs, hospitals or schools in the area the company wanted to mine. Kapadia analysed the accounts of the company to find out whether it could set aside a portion of profits for tribals’ welfare. He dissected the accounts segment-wise to discover a profit of about Rs 500 crore when without the standard of accounting the profit would be only Rs 15 crore.
“A judge sitting in tax matters knows the accounting standards. It helps us to decide matters in the context of socio-economic justice enshrined in the Constitution… This is where I emphasise the knowledge of the basic concepts.’’
A Mumbai lawyer who knows him from the time Kapadia was a lawyer and later judge, says that he has evolved into a complete jurist. Yet, the Chief Justice has not stopped learning.
In July 2011, the Supreme Court gave a verdict in a case involving limestone mining in Meghalaya’s East Khasi Hills by Franco-Spanish cement company Lafarge Umiam Mining. Almost a year-and-a-half before that, the company had been asked to stop mining by a Bench headed by Justice KG Balakrishnan. When the hearing resumed, Justice Balakrishnan had retired and Kapadia was presiding on the three-judge bench.
As Harish Salve began to argue for Lafarge, Kapadia realised that he did not know enough background. So he asked the senior lawyer to brief the court on the history of environmental jurisprudence. A stumped Salve said that would be like reading a textbook. To which Kapadia replied that he was a Bombay man who understood very little about environmental matters and would Salve not help the court? Every Friday for the next seven weeks the cavernous courtroom turned into a classroom where Salve elaborated on the evolution of environmental jurisprudence in India.
There are two qualities of Justice Kapadia that no one disputes— integrity and compassion.
“His humble beginnings are reflected in his outlook and judgements,’’ says senior lawyer Soli Sorabjee. “A litigant may feel disappointed if he loses the case but no litigant goes back [from Kapadia’s court] feeling he was not fairly or fully heard.’’
In his pursuit of flawless integrity, Kapadia has hermetically sealed himself. He even said in a speech that judges and lawyers should work like a horse and live like a hermit. When Forbes India sought to interview him for this profile, the CJ’s office said the strict code of conduct binding Supreme Court judges does not allow him to agree. Kapadia’s personal code of conduct is more severe. Retired Justice VR Krishna Iyer told Forbes India that he had gathered from his colleagues that he was too dignified to even meet other judges, rarely meets anybody at random and when he speaks he is taciturn.
Kapadia does not accept even official invitations if they fall on a working day. He once rejected an invitation to represent India at a conference of the Commonwealth Law Association in Hyderabad because it fell on a working day. On the first day in office as CJI, he cleared 39 matters in half an hour. Kapadia has practically dedicated his life to the profession, rarely taking holidays even.
During the first summer holidays after he became chief justice, Kapadia is said to have come to office everyday to streamline the SC registry.
According to several lawyers, the registry had deteriorated into a corrupt office where ‘bench hunting’ was common. Bench hunting is gaming the allocation process to make sure that a certain matter appears before a certain judge who the lawyer thinks will rule in a particular way. Kapadia has put an end to it and is now said to review the day’s board of case listings and pull up the SC staff if he finds something amiss. The CJ has also stopped out-of-turn mentioning of cases to be taken up urgently, which has caused some consternation among lawyers. Earlier, lawyers could request the judge while the court was in session to take up an unlisted matter because it was urgent. Now they have to file an urgency petition a day in advance. The system exists because there is a mountain of pending cases in the judicial system. And since the SC is the final authority, it gets overburdened. “It will not be long before we have a 100 judges in the SC,’’ says a lawyer. The SC currently has 30 judges, excluding the CJI. The Indian justice system had drawn a lot of flak over the past few years after the integrity of several past and sitting judges was questioned. But Kapadia defended the system in his Law Day speech last November.
“I am an optimist. I do not share the impression that judicial system has collapsed or is fast collapsing. I strongly believe and maintain that with all the drawbacks and limitations with shortage of resources and capacity, we still have a time-tested system,’’ he said. He also said that the backlog of cases is not as huge as is made out to be. “Seventy-four percent of the cases are less than five years old,’’ he said and added that the focus is on quickly disposing of the rest of the cases.
Kapadia has certainly restored the confidence and pride in the Supreme Court of India.
“He will certainly be remembered for the landmark Vodafone decision,’’ says Percy Billimoria, senior partner at corporate law firm AZB and Partners. “Whenever anyone complains about the retrospective amendment of the tax law on this issue, I always retort by reminding them that the fact that the decision held that the government’s stand on a matter with such far reaching revenue implications was contrary to the law at the time shows that at least our judiciary is fair and independent.’’
By the time Kapadia hangs up his cloak and collar on September 29, he would have left an indelible mark on India’s judicial history. Former Justice VR Krishna Iyer told Forbes India: “While I have seen during the last 97 years of my life among good judges with great credentials, there was hardly anyone to compare with Kapadia the like of which no eye had seen, no heart conceived and no human tongue can adequately tell.’’
A commission to select judges will be an improvement on the collegium only if its members are of the highest standing
The Constitution of India operates in happy harmony with the instrumentalities of the executive and the legislature. But to be truly great, the judiciary exercising democratic power must enjoy independence of a high order. But independence could become dangerous and undemocratic unless there is a constitutional discipline with rules of good conduct and accountability: without these, the robes may prove arrogant.
It is in this context that Chief Justice S.H. Kapadia’s observations, at an event at the Supreme Court of India on Independence Day, underlining the need for the government to balance judicial accountability with judicial independence, have to be reconciled with what Law Minister Salman Khurshid observed about judicial propriety. It is this reconciliation of the trinity of instrumentality in their functionalism that does justice to the Constitution. A great and grand chapter on judicial sublime behaviour to forbid the “robes” becoming unruly or rude and to remain ever sober is obligatory.
The Constitution has three instrumentalities — executive, legislative and judicative. The implementation of the state’s laws and policies is the responsibility of the executive. The Cabinet headed by the Prime Minister at the Centre and the Cabinet led by the Chief Minister in the States, are its principal agencies. The rule of law governs the administration.
Parliament consisting of two Houses and legislatures at the State level make law. When the executive and the legislature do anything that is arbitrary, or contrary to the constitutional provisions, the judiciary has the power to correct them by issuing directions under Article 143. The Constitution lays down the fundamental rights, and if the States do not safeguard them, any citizen can approach the Supreme Court for the issue of a writ to defend his or her fundamental rights.
Thus, among the three instrumentalities, the judiciary has pre-eminence. But the judiciary itself has to act according to the Constitution and work within the framework of the Constitution.
Felix Frankfurter pointed out thus: “Judges as persons, or courts as institutions, are entitled to no greater immunity from criticism than other persons or institutions. Just because the holders of judicial office are identified with the interests of justice they may forget their common human frailties and fallibilities. There have sometimes been martinets upon the bench as there have also been pompous wielders of authority who have used the paraphernalia of power in support of what they called their dignity. Therefore judges must be kept mindful of their limitations and of their ultimate public responsibility by a vigorous stream of criticism expressed with candor however blunt.”
Judges are the ultimate authority in the interpretation of the Constitution, and so must be learned in the law and in the cultural wealth of the world. They play a vital role in the working of the Constitution and the laws. But how judges are appointed is a matter of concern. Simply put, the President appoints them, but in this the President only carries out the Cabinet’s decisions.
The Preamble to the Constitution lays down as the fundamentals of the paramount law that India shall be a socialist, secular democratic republic which shall enforce justice — social, economic and political — and ensure liberty of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship, equality of status and of opportunity, and promote among them fraternity, ensuring the individual’s dignity and the nation’s unity and integrity.
Need for clarity
But who will select the judges, and ascertain their qualifications and class character? Unless there is a clear statement of the principles of selection, the required character and conduct of judges in a democracy may fail since they will often belong to a class of the proprietariat, and the proletariat will have no voice in the governance: the proprietariat will remain the ruling class.
Winston Churchill made this position clear with respect to Britain thus: “The courts hold justly a high, and I think, unequalled pre-eminence in the respect of the world in criminal cases, and in civil cases between man and man, no doubt, they deserve and command the respect and admiration of all classes of the community, but where class issues are involved, it is impossible to pretend that the courts command the same degree of general confidence. On the contrary, they do not, and a very large number of our population have been led to the opinion that they are, unconsciously, no doubt, biased.”
We in India have under the Constitution the same weaknesses pointed out by Churchill, with the result that socialism and social justice remain a promise on paper. Then came a new creation called collegiums. The concept was brought in by a narrow majority of one in a 5-4 decision of the Supreme Court for the selection of judges. It was binding on the executive, the decisions of which in turn were bound to be implemented by the President.
Thus, today we have a curious creation with no backing under the Constitution, except a ruling of the Supreme Court, and that too based on a very thin majority in a single ruling. Today, the collegium on its own makes the selection. There is no structure to hear the public in the process of selection. No principle is laid down, no investigation is made, and a sort of anarchy prevails.
In a minimal sense, the selection of judges of the highest court is done in an unprincipled manner, without investigation or study of the class character by the members of the collegium. There has been criticism of the judges so selected, but the collegium is not answerable to anyone.
In these circumstances, the Union Law Minister has stated that the government proposes to change the collegium system and substitute it with a commission. But, how should the commission be constituted? To whom will it be answerable? What are the guiding principles to be followed by the Commission? These issues remain to be publicly discussed. A constitutional amendment, with a special chapter of the judiciary, is needed. Such an amendment can come about only through parliamentary action.
Surely a commission to select judges for the Supreme Court has to be of high standing. It must be of the highest order, of a status equal to that of the Prime Minister or a Supreme Court judge. The commission’s chairman should be the Chief Justice of India.
In the process of selection, an investigation into the character, class bias, communal leanings and any other imputations that members of the public may make, may have to be investigated. This has to be done not by the police, which function under the government, but by an independent secret investigation agency functioning under the commission’s control. These and other views expressed by outstanding critics may have to be considered.
The commission has to be totally independent and its ideology should be broadly in accord with the values of the Constitution. It should naturally uphold the sovereignty of the Constitution beyond pressures from political parties and powerful corporations, and be prepared to act without fear or favour, affection or ill-will. It should act independently — such should be its composition and operation. The commission should be immune to legal proceedings, civil and criminal. It should be removed only by a high tribunal consisting of the Chief Justice of India and the Chief Justice of all the High Courts sitting together and deciding on any charges publicly made. We, the people of India, should have a free expression in the commission’s process.
(V.R. Krishna Iyer, eminent jurist, is a former Judge of the Supreme Court of India)
- Judicial appointments & disappointments (thehindu.com)
- Accountability, independence can coexist, Centre tells CJI (thehindu.com)
- Lessons in judicial restraint (indialawyers.wordpress.com)
- SC slowly taking over Parliament: Katju (ibnlive.in.com)
- Disturbing trends in judicial activism (indialawyers.wordpress.com)
- Judicial freedom won’t be undermined by proposed law: Khurshid (thehindu.com)
- A PIL in Feb alleged that CJI Kapadia had a conflict of interest in the Vodafone tax case. It was dismissed; a penalty was imposed.
- Advocate Harish Salve says he was misquoted in the Vodafone matter. Eligibility criterion spelt out for court reporters.
- In Mar, CJI says reports on the disproportionate assets of ex-CJI K.G. Balakrishnan are upsetting
- SC hurt by reports of a judge listing her daughters in ‘liabilities’
- Advocate Fali Nariman says a confidential exchange between his client Sahara and SEBI was leaked on TV. CJI directs parties to make submission in the matter.
- Court expresses concern over how the media reported on events surrounding the murder of Arushi Talwar and on her personal life
Over the last couple of days, two pillars of democracy have decided that the media must be kept on a leash. First, the Lok Sabha secretariat declared that the media would not be allowed in the vicinity of parliamentary standing and joint committee meetings. Reporters usually hang about for informal briefings from MP acquaintances—it’s the life-breath of in-depth coverage of Parliament. Media professionals wonder if the unprecedented order is timed to prevent reporting on the three defence chiefs’ appearance before a parliamentary committee, slated for April 20. Second, the Allahabad High Court prohibited the media from writing or reporting further on the sensational news of troop movements towards Delhi on Jan 16-17. The Union i&b ministry followed up with an advisory seeking strict adherence to the court order. The two restrictions come even as the Supreme Court is mulling guidelines for law reporters covering it.
So, is this the system recoiling at all those big news stories of scams and criminal investigations that have come out recently? Media professionals feel these ‘guidelines’ would end up stifling them. The bigger fear is that, when institutions like the Supreme Court and the Lok Sabha start writing rulebooks for the media, they might prompt others—say the bureaucracy and the police—to do so too. The cascading effect could shrink the space of reporting in the same proportion as RTI added to it.
It was in the backdrop of an information explosion triggered by television channels, where opinions were sought and decisions arrived at swiftly, that the Law Commission finalised its 2006 report, ‘Trial by Media’, framing guidelines for reporting on criminal proceedings in court. The report makes a case for not covering a trial till it is concluded. It is learnt the Centre is in active consultation with the states on the commission’s report.
As the five-judge constitution bench under the Chief Justice of India, S.H. Kapadia, engages in a threadbare discussion on the media with advocates of freedom of the press and others, it is perhaps time to ask, as indeed the court is doing, whether guidelines regulating the media are required at all. In fact, is there any reason to suppose that media coverage has led to miscarriage of justice. And have existing guidelines failed? Linked to both questions is the public’s right to know and be informed.
Already, there are quite a few guidelines to begin with. There’s the Press Council Act of 1979, though its powers could be debated. Presided over by a retired judge and with journalists and newspapers’ representatives on the board, the council has the power to censure, warn and admonish the press if it fails to adhere to the guidelines. Its present head, Justice Markandeya Katju, has called the Allahabad High Court’s gag order “not correct” and said that “the media has a fundamental right to make such a publication, as it did not endanger national security”.
Then, there’s the News Broadcasting Authority of India (NBA), a self-regulatory body of broadcasters with academics, eminent persons and a former CJI on its rolls. It has a detailed programme code, advocates voluntary adherence and imposes penalties. After the 28/11 attack on Mumbai, it had drawn up rules for reportage by the electronic media.
In his capacity as chairperson of NBA, which is a party to the SC’s deliberations guidelines for the media, former CJI J.S. Verma says, “I feel that, as there are already guidelines drawn up by the channels themselves, the bench in my view could suggest modifications if it so wished. In fact, if the judiciary says compliance with existing guidelines is desirable, that itself will have the desired effect.” Verma—who is often openly critical of media reports—thinks peer pressure works better than imposed guidelines.
Other senior lawyers hold the view that the court has no power to make laws. Former SC judge Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer calls the SC’s attempt to regulate the media a case of judicial overreach. “It’s Parliament that has the right to legislate, not the court.”
Though the chief justice of India has repeatedly clarified that the aim is to regulate, not control, these recent exercises are seen as part of an overall process to control a media that is seen as increasingly critical and combative. The judiciary and the media, which appeared to be working in tandem at one point, now appear to have fallen out.
Does the public have a right to know about how justice is delivered? And if it does, how will that happen if reporters are not permitted to report? Such a move would also run against the open court proceedings our judiciary has adopted till now. There are many who suggest that instead of a broad arc of guidelines, what is required is a case-to-case examination. If an error takes place due to the media, there are adequate grievance redressal structures within the courts in the form of contempt and defamation laws. Moreover, journalists enjoys no special immunities or privileges by law.
Says Kumar Ketkar, editor of Divya Bhaskar, “I am quite critical of the media, but I feel the Supreme Court is overstepping its brief in wanting to frame guidelines for court reporting as the move creates an impression that the court alone is the upholder of integrity, sovereignty and the national interest. This is unfortunate. It would also appear that court and the media are in direct confrontation with each other.”
Adds Arnab Goswami, head of Time Now, “If everything now becomes a matter of litigation, there will be nothing to report on. What will we report on?”
- Cannot ban news as it is perishable, Supreme Court told (indialawyers.wordpress.com)
- Press Council for court guidelines, The Hindu opposes idea (indialawyers.wordpress.com)
- Reporting guidelines: Supreme Court expands scope of deliberations (indialawyers.wordpress.com)
- SC will begin contemplating ‘framing of guidelines’ for court reporters (indialawyers.wordpress.com)
- Supreme Court seeks balance between fair trial and press freedom (indialawyers.wordpress.com)
- The public needs both gavel and pen (indialawyers.wordpress.com)
Don’t embark on a futile exercise, Shanti Bhushan tells Supreme Court Constitution Bench
The Press Council of India (PCI) on Tuesday suggested that the Supreme Court frame guidelines for the media as these would be in the interest of not only administration of justice and rights of the litigant public but also the media themselves.
“The media, both print and electronic, have been playing an important role in shaping and sustaining Indian democracy,” senior counsel P.P. Rao, appearing for the PCI, told a five-judge Constitution Bench headed by Chief Justice S.H. Kapadia. “The scheme of the Press Council Act itself shows that the intention of Parliament is to allow self-regulation by the media as far as possible. While the print media is within the purview of the Press Council Act, the electronic media is not. Therefore, it is desirable to lay down guidelines for both the print and electronic media to follow in reporting court proceedings, rather than making statutory rules.”
Mr. Rao told the Bench, which included Justices D.K. Jain, S.S. Nijjar, Ranjana Desai and J.S. Khehar, that the court, while framing the guidelines, might take into consideration the relevant norms of journalistic conduct laid down by the PCI. Explaining the powers of the PCI, counsel said: “Section 14(1) of the Press Council Act confers on the Council power to warn, admonish or censure the newspaper, news agency, the editor and the journalist or disapprove [of] the conduct of the editor or the journalist, as the case may be, after holding an enquiry into the complaints. The Council, which is presided over by a retired judge of this court and in which editors, working journalists and managements of big, medium and small newspapers are represented, has laid down Norms of Journalistic Conduct. Self-regulation is always better than statutory regulation. However, when any TV channel, newspaper or news agency fails to adhere to the guidelines laid down by this court, appropriate orders may be passed in the facts and circumstances of each case.”
The former Law Minister, Shanti Bhushan, appearing for some journalists, asked the CJI to dissolve the Constitution Bench hearing the present case, saying it would be a futile exercise. He cited an instance of the former CJI, Justice A.N. Ray, dissolving a 13-judge Bench after he found no support for his case. Mr. Bhushan was referring to a move by Justice Ray, who set up the 13-judge Bench to reconsider the Kesavananda Bharti judgment in which the court had held that Parliament had no right to amend the basic structure of the Constitution.
Mr. Bhushan asked the Bench not to embark on a futile exercise which would be detrimental to the rights of the press and destroy democracy in this country. “No purpose will be solved by going through this exercise.”
Taking the Anna Hazare argument, he argued that people were sovereign in India. “That is the reason why even the right to freedom of press was not absolute in this country. It was instead left to Parliament to lay down reasonable restrictions on this freedom. All institutions in our democracy are people’s institutions. Even the judiciary is accountable to the people. People have a right to know what is happening.”
Senior counsel Anil Divan, appearing for the Editor of The Hindu, Siddharth Varadarajan, commenced his arguments, pointing out the anomaly of the court deciding to lay down guidelines which in this case would “abridge” the freedoms of individuals instead of “protecting” them or “disciplining” officials. Mr. Divan cited the ‘Visakha judgment,’ saying that in that case the court was only seeking to protect fundamental rights of citizens. But in this case the Bench was embarking on a quasi-legislative exercise as once the court framed guidelines they would become immune from judicial review. “I will have no remedy. But tomorrow, if Parliament were to adopt these guidelines, the person aggrieved will have a remedy. I can challenge them before you.”
Mr. Divan said the exercise undertaken by the court was not prudent in view of globalisation of information dissemination technology. “If the guidelines will be coercive or binding in nature, then it is covered by the legislative process.”
The CJI intervened, and said: “The deliberations on the guidelines were not a result of adversarial litigation. We are only trying to regulate the media to the extent that the rights of person in criminal cases are protected under Article 21 [Right to life and liberty] of the Constitution.”
The CJI asked Mr. Divan to address the question whether the rights of the press could be balanced to ensure administration of justice and protect the rights of the accused to ensure a free trial in a criminal case.
Arguments will continue on Wednesday.
- SC will begin contemplating ‘framing of guidelines’ for court reporters (indialawyers.wordpress.com)
- ‘Amending power is unique’ (indialawyers.wordpress.com)
- CJI writes to govt proposing National Court Management System (indialawyers.wordpress.com)
- Reporting guidelines: Supreme Court expands scope of deliberations (indialawyers.wordpress.com)
- The public needs both gavel and pen (indialawyers.wordpress.com)
Come Tuesday, the Supreme Court will begin contemplating ‘framing of guidelines’ for court reporters. How the hearings play out affects both reporters and you, the citizen
Picture this: After months of waiting, your property dispute or society imbroglio finally comes up for hearing. Enter the court reporter — seeing his presence in the court causes a palpable impact on the behaviour of lawyers and judges alike. However, if the Supreme Court of India has its way this Tuesday, court reporters across India will now have to follow guidelines on how to report matters of their beat. The court will be hearing interventions in the matter of ‘framing of guidelines for reporting of cases in media.’
The guidelines the Supreme Court frames potentially impact coverage of all courts in India. In 2007, the SC had also framed a similar set of norms for accreditation of legal correspondents covering the apex court, which, among other things, insisted that journalists have a law degree, and a certain amount of experience. On March 20, a Constitution bench of the Supreme Court led by Chief Justice of India SH Kapadia took up the issue of framing guidelines for the media to report cases in courts. The setting up of the Constitution Bench by the CJI comes in the wake of misreporting of court hearings and leaking of confidential information affecting litigants.
Veteran journalist and columnist MJ Antony considered the impact the move would have on the freedom of the press. “If a report is found to have been in violation of the guidelines, are we going to scrutinise individual paragraphs to prove it? Who will be held liable for the mistake? What is the punishment and what is the remedy?” Besides, he points out that all media organisations have their own code of conduct, besides which exist bodies like the National Broadcast Association and the Press Council of India. Advocate Madhavi Divan, author of Facets of Media Law, a commentary on aspects of media law and its regulation emphasised that the ‘open justice system’ must not be forgotten. “Traditionally, any member of the public could come in and watch court proceedings. The logic of this has been that the public should be allowed to understand the administration of justice. As they say, ‘justice must seem to be done’.”
But she adds that the media is in a slightly different position. “Unlike the American Constitution, ours confers no special status to the press beyond ‘freedom of speech and expression‘, but the media still remains a trustee. The public relies on the media for responsible dissemination of news, and this must be taken into account. As long as the guidelines do not unreasonably restrict the freedom of speech and expression, the media cannot protest.” Welcoming the move, court reporter-turned-advocate Rajiv Wagh said, “Reporting court proceedings is quite different from covering politics or crime. One does not need technical knowledge to cover those subjects. Some training imparted by news organisations would be helpful. The court itself could also consider running short training programs specifically for court reporters.”
To some extent, adds Antony, the media can correct its own mistakes. “If a doctor makes a mistake, the patient may die. If a structural engineer makes a mistake, a building might collapse. But if a newspaper makes a mistake, it can issue a clarification and rectify it.”
The biggest problem, say journalists, is the lack of a proper channel to dispense information from courts in real-time. Many orders and judgements are uploaded on the Internet, but that is often too late for reporters to make a good story of. Reporters must also be familiar with the laws of contempt, in order to safeguard their interests and yet manage to break stories.
Motive and Intent
Above all, added Wagh, your motives should be clear. “You can tell from a report when a story is motivated. When your motives are clear and your only intent is to get the truth out, you will rarely get into trouble.” There is also an urgent need to implement a system of cross-verifying what a reporter hears in court. Divan said, “There has been talk of implementing video recording, which would go a long way in preventing inaccuracies. Abroad, every word uttered in court is recorded in writing, so the question of misreporting doesn’t arise.”
Concluded Divan, “It is unfortunate that the courts have had to step in; it should not have come to this. The media ought to have regulated itself from the outset.”