Bill on judicial accountability

The Union Cabinet after approving the Judges Assets Bill mandating the Chief Justice of India as well as other judges of the Supreme Court and HCs to declare their assets and that of their dependents has swiftly moved on to step 2 of the reforms agenda—a bill designed to make judges accountable for infringements of law. The Cabinet meeting overwhelmingly favoured a law to extend the frontiers of accountability to members of the higher judiciary, dismantling the system where they are treated as holy cows. The accountabiity legislation would seek to introduce a mechanism to inquire into cases of misconduct by judges. At present, the inquiry into any misconduct—be it Mysore sex scandal, Punjab and Haryana HC cash-at-door scam involving judges or Soumitra Sen of Calcutta HC—is done by an in-house panel of three judges appointed by the CJI. The CJI used to receive the findings of the committee and take steps on the administrative side. The steps taken by the CJI in these matters on the administrative side seldom proved a deterrent as judges of the HCs and SC are all constitutional post holders who can be removed only through a cumbersome impeachment motion. The second legislation which may be introduced in the next session of Parliament will be necessary also for enforcement of the Judges Assets Bill. Take for example, the provision in the Judges Assets Bill that provides for adverse consequences a judge would attract if he did not declare assets owned by him and his dependents or when he makes an inadequate or false declaration. Under the voluntary declaration scheme that has been in vogue since 1997, he would attract no penalty. Under the Bill cleared by the Cabinet on Thursday, however, he would be obliged to give an explanation to the CJI. If the CJI finds the explanation unsatisfactory, then he could take action against him as per law, says the Bill which possibly could include drastic constitutional steps. Also, while the information on assets made to the CJI is not to be put in the public domain, the Bill specifically provides freedom to individual judges of HCs and SC to go public with their assets if they so desired. Also, though the Bill accepted the judiciary’s suggestion not to make the assets so declared by the judges amenable to queries under the RTI Act, it proposed that the CJI should declare his assets to the President. Immediately after assuming charge as law minister, Veerappa Moily had promised to chalk out a roadmap for judicial reforms, but was sympathetic to their apprehension that making it public under the RTI Act could lead to frivolous litigation leading to harassment.

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