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A chequered year for Indian judiciary

December 30, 2008 10:28 IST

A run-in between the judiciary and the executive over appointment of three Supreme Court judges and an impeachment move against a High Court judge topped the issues that kept the Law Ministry's hands full in an year, which also saw some progress on the introduction of the Judges Inquiry Bill 2008 to check corruption.

Whether it was Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's veiled statement about the need for introspection within the judiciary or the public attention attracted by the UP PF scam and the Chandigarh cash-on-door incident, the judiciary's image seemed to have taken a beating due to incidents of misconduct allegedly involving judges.

The public outcry over incidents of alleged corruption in judiciary also saw the CJI K G Balakrishnan, at one stage, describing the UP PF scam as a 'blot' on the image of the judiciary.

Balakrishnan's resolve to crack the whip against the 'black sheep' within the judiciary notwithstanding, his recommendation for impeachment of Calcutta HC judge Soumitra Sen added to the growing public perception about alleged corruption in judiciary.

The government did its bit by granting a clearance from the Cabinet for introducing the Judges (inquiry) Amendment Bill, 2008, in Parliament, making clear its intention to 'enhance the judiciary's prestige' and bringing transparency in the functioning of the judiciary.

The Bill aims to establish a National Judicial Council with powers to investigate complaints against judges of the higher judiciary and recommend suitable action after following the prescribed procedure.

The debate on judicial appointments based on the system of collegium (panel of judges) too got louder during the year with the Law Minister H R Bhardwaj favouring primacy of the CJI in such matters but former CJIs and other experts putting their weight behind the existing system.

However, the government, in Parliament, maintained that there was no proposal to change the present system of appointment of judges in the higher judiciary which is guided by the apex court's interpretation of the Constitution in the Advocates-on-Record vs Union of India matter.

There were signs of a possible confrontation between the judiciary and the government over a proposal to elevate three High Court Chief Justices to Supreme Court as the government referred back the proposal to the CJI for a re-look.

The CJI, however, stuck to his ground and resent the proposal for elevation of HC Chief Justices H L Dattu, A K Ganguly and R M Lodha to the government for forwarding them to the President for appointment. The three were later appointed to the Supreme Court.

The entire episode seemed to have overtones of a tussle between the Judiciary and the Executive which was later sought to be denied by the Law Minister, who in a reply to a question in the House, said, "There is no conflict between the Government and the Judiciary."

To counter the shortcomings in judicial appointments, the Law Commission recommended two alternatives to the government. One, seek a reconsideration of Supreme Court's three judgements related to judicial appointment before the apex court.

Otherwise, a bill may be passed restoring the primacy of the CJI and the power of the Executive to make appointments, Commission Chairman A R Lakshmanan said in his report.

To deal with backlog of cases, issues like augmentation of judicial posts, including those in the Supreme Court, also kept the ministry busy. The judicial impact task force in its report recommended creation of new courts to handle cases related to new laws.

Five judges were appointed to the apex court and 72 new HC judges were appointed during the year. The Gram Nyayalayas Bill-2008 to check increase in workload of courts by delivering justice at doorstep of rural masses through mobile courts, was introduced this year.

The issue of too many vacations in the SC caught the eye of a House panel which said it works 190 days in a year and described its vacations as a 'colonial legacy' and a 'privilege' that the judicial system could hardly afford in the view of over 48,000 pending cases.

"Given the huge number of cases pending in the Supreme Court the system of lengthy vacation is better done away with," said E M S Natchiappan, Chairman of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Law Ministry.

While endorsing a Bill seeking increase in strength of the apex court judges from 25 to 30, excluding the CJI, the Committee said, "Reduced vacations will automatically add to the number of working days."

The government recently informed the Parliament that the apex Court has reduced its summer vacation from eight weeks to seven weeks.
Rahul Chhabra in New Delhi
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