12 November, 2011

The seven deadly sins of judges

Ruma Pal

Judges are fierce in using the word [“independence”] as a sword to take action in contempt against critics. But the word is also used as a shield to cover a multitude of sins, some venial and others not so venial. Any lawyer practising before a court will, I am sure, have a rather long list of these. I have chosen seven.

The first is the sin of “brushing under the carpet”, or turning a Nelsonian eye. Many judges are aware of injudicious conduct of a colleague but have either ignored it or refused to confront the judge concerned, and suppressed any public discussion on the issue, often through the great silencer — the law of contempt.

The second sin is that of “hypocrisy”. A favourite rather pompous phrase in judgments is “Be you ever so high, the law is above you”, or words to similar effect. And yet judges who enforce the law for others often break that law with impunity. This includes traffic regulations, and another regulation to which the “ordinary” citizen is subject. Some in fact get offended if their car is held up by the police at all while controlling the flow of traffic — the feeling of offence sometimes being translated into action, by issuance of a rule of contempt against the hapless police constable, all in the name of judicial independence.

The third sin is that of secrecy. The normal response of courts to any enquiry as to their functioning is to temporise, stonewall and prevaricate. As I have said elsewhere, the process by which a judge is appointed to the high court or elevated to the Supreme Court is one of the best-kept secrets in the country...

If “independence” is taken to mean “capable of thinking for oneself”, then the fourth sin is plagiarism and prolixity. I club the two together because the root cause is often the same, namely the prolific and often unnecessary use of passages from textbooks and decisions of other judges — without acknowledgement in the first case, and with acknowledgement in the latter. Many judgments are in fact mere compendia or digests of decisions on a particular issue, with very little original reasoning in support of the conclusion.

Often judges misconstrue judicial independence as judicial and administrative indiscipline. Both of these in fact stem from judicial arrogance as to one’s intellectual ability and status.... Intellectual arrogance, or what some may call intellectual dishonesty, is manifest when judges decide without being bound by principles of stare decisis or precedent...

Independence implies discipline to decide objectively and with intellectual integrity and as the judicial oath of office requires, without fear, favour, affection or ill will. Most importantly judges must be perceived as so deciding, or to use Lord Hewart’s classic dicta that “justice should not only be done, but should manifestly and undoubtedly be seen to be done,” because the belief of corruption is as damaging to the credibility in the independence of the judiciary as the act of corruption.

This brings me to the seventh and final sin of nepotism or what the oath of office calls “favour” and “affection”. What is required of a judge is a degree of aloofness and reclusiveness not only vis-a-vis litigants but also vis-a-vis lawyers. Litigants include the executive. Injudicious conduct includes known examples such as judges using a guesthouse of a private company or a public sector undertaking for a holiday or accepting benefits like the allocation of land from the discretionary quota of a chief minister. I can only emphasise again that nothing destroys a judge’s credibility more than a perception that he/she decides according to closeness to one of the parties to the litigation or what has come to be described in the corridors of courts as “face value”.

...I will conclude with most important facet of judicial independence. Judicial independence cannot exist without accountability. At present the only disciplinary power over judges is vested in Parliament which provides for the extreme punishment of removal for acts of proven misbehaviour by or incapacity of a judge...

Deprivation of jurisdiction or the non-allocation of work to a dishonest judge was resorted to by Chief Justice Sabyasachi Mukherjee when the impeachment of Justice V. Ramaswamy failed for political reasons. Sometimes Chief Justices control a recalcitrant judge by ensuring that the judge concerned sits with the Chief Justice or with a “strong” judge until he or she retires. The situation becomes more difficult if the allegations are against the Chief Justice. Solutions evolved have proved inadequate and ad hoc. There is a need for an effective mechanism for enforcing judicial accountability...

Ruma Pal is a former Supreme Court judge. Article extracted from the V.M. Tarkunde memorial lecture, delivered on November 10, 2011

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