Bench Needs Reform, So Does the Bar
Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer once said that the threat to the independence of the judiciary is more from within the judicial system than from outside. Last week’s unfortunate revolt by a few judges of the apex court against the Chief Justice of India substantiates his observation. The public trust and respect built over the years by great men who sat on the high bench have been shattered by the thoughtless actions of a few. Meanwhile, the alleged selective allocation of “sensitive cases”, if true, is a serious matter as it affects the impartiality of judges and integrity of the institution.
If the public gets the impression that the allegation of impropriety is not only against the CJI but also against the so-called junior judges, can they be faulted? The letter written by the four judges also alleged that the functioning of the Supreme Court is less than desirable. Though the letter did not identify the issues excepting “selective case allocation”, media reports highlighted the role being
played by some senior advocates in precipitating the judicial crisis. Recently, there was the spectacle of some senior lawyers shouting at the Chief Justice in a language which normally would have invited contempt action. The manner in which some lawyers disparage the judiciary, attributing motives against judges on TV programmes, undermines the respect for the institution in the public mind. Bench hunting or bench fixing is a game lawyers play with impunity, apparently to get orders they want from the court. In this context, the Bar Council of India—which took the welcome initiative of intervening with the justices to sort out differences— would do well to hold an inquiry on the role of advocates in the entire episode and take steps to check this sort of unprofessional conduct.
No doubt, there is a need to introduce urgent reforms in the judicial system to save it from judges who show tendencies of committing judicial suicide.
The first step in this regard is to put in place an accountability system
as proposed in the bill introduced in Parliament a few years ago. Along with it, the National Judicial Appointments Commission Act should be brought back before Parliament, perhaps with its composition changed to reflect what was proposed in the report submitted by the Justice Venkatachaliah Commission on functioning of the Constitution.
However, no measure of judicial reforms will succeed unless a similar reform of the bar is attempted. The Advocates Act, 1961, will not be able to comprehend the profession today for it has grown too large, diversified and complex over the last 50 years and more. Mediation and arbitration, which have grown over the years, have very little in common with the litigating profession, which was the main focus when the Advocates Act was adopted.
The mechanism for ensuring competence, professionalism and accountability of legal practitioners must be strengthened without impairing the autonomy of the profession.