Judges of the Supreme Court and high courts would be subject to the scrutiny of a high-level committee and those facing serious charges of misconduct may be asked to step down, according to a new bill that was approved by the Union Cabinet on Tuesday.
The much-delayed Judicial Standards and Accountability Bill, 2010 provides for setting up of a five-member oversight committee to be headed by a former chief justice of India and including the attorney general to go into complaints against members of the higher judiciary.
Other members of the apex committee would be a Supreme Court judge, a chief justice of a high court and an eminent person nominated by the President. The bill, which seeks to replace the Judges (Inquiry) Act, 1968 while retaining its basic features, is being introduced in Parliament amid growing incidents of allegations of misconduct against judges.
"The enactment of the bill will address the growing concerns regarding the need to ensure greater accountability of the higher judiciary by bringing in more transparency and would further strengthen the credibility and independence of the judiciary," Information and Broadcasting Minister Ambika Soni told reporters while briefing on the Cabinet decision.
Under the bill, a judge not facing serious charges may be let off after a warning. However, if any judge faces serious charges that would require further investigation, that particular judge may be asked to step down, Soni said. The bill has provisions for setting up of scrutiny committees to which cases will be referred by the oversight committee.
Soni said the screening committee will be in place for Supreme Court and in each of the 21 high courts. The committees would investigate the charges and submit reports within three months to the oversight committee. A former chief justice of India and two judges of the apex court will be members of the screening committee for the Supreme Court. Similarly, the former chief justice of a high court and two judges of high court would be members of the screening committees to be constituted for the high courts.
"At present there is no legal provision for dealing with complaints filed by the public against judges of the Supreme Court and the high courts," Soni said.
As of now, there is no law that requires the judges of the Supreme Court and the high courts to declare their assets and liabilities. There is also no statutory sanction for judicial standards. The bill also has a provision for allowing the common man to complain about the alleged misconduct of a judge. But the citizens will have to reveal the source of their information in complaints filed by them.
The bill also lays down certain guidelines or code of conducts for judges. The proposed law expects judges not to delay delivering a judgment beyond a three-month time frame after conclusion of arguments. According to the bill, the members of the higher judiciary should have no bias in judicial work or judgments on the basis of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth.
The other guidelines laid down say they should not contest the election of any club or society; not have close association with individual members of the bar and not allow any member of their immediate family to appear before them in courts. The bill also proposes to make provisions for declaration of assets and liabilities of judges.
The bill was earlier introduced in Parliament and referred to a standing committee. With the expiry of the last Lok Sabha, the bill had to be reintroduced. The bill was brought before the Cabinet in March this year but was referred to a Group of Ministers after sharp differences over the provision of 'minor reprimand' for members of the higher judiciary arose during the meeting. The GoM, headed by Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar, had cleared the bill in May.