Responsibilities of Chief Justice | A BROKEN DREAM | Status of Rule of Law, Human Rights and Democracy

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Besides essential judicial work the toughest job for a Chief Justice is the constitution of different Benches of the High Court Division. It is an extremely difficult chore. In India, I came to know in course of discussions with Altamas Kabir and TS Thakur, former Chief Justices, that they did not have a choice in the allocation of cases to different Benches. They use a computer program for the allocation of cases and thus the judges have no choice. But our case is completely different because our appointment procedure is totally political ignoring the constitutional mandate. The Executive is not concerned with quality and, therefore, the Chief Justice must consider many things, among them the most important is eligibility of the presiding judge to resolve the subject properly. ATM Afzal, former chief justice, told me on one occasion that the constitution of Benches and allocation of cases are the most challenging tasks. After assuming office, I realized that it was indeed a tough job. You must keep in mind the number of cases of different nature pending in court. All judges are dependable on all subjects. They have shortcomings on different laws, but the Chief Justice must get the necessary work done by them. Most of the judges are interested to preside over a Division Bench and wanted motion powers in criminal matters and their second choice was writ motion powers.

After writ matters were fragmented into different groups, they lost their importance. I did it intentionally. Some judges were in the habit of issuing rule and stay orders without caring about the merit of the petition and its consequence. Opinions of different Benches vary; one Bench might take cognizance of a matter, but another could decline to do so on the same issue. Some judges took cognizance of matters which were already settled by the apex court. Criminal matters are also fragmented in different groups but even then, power of motions on bail matters was given top priority. Some of the judges are very qualified and knowledgeable but as they had not practiced in civil and criminal matters they did not have good grasp of those laws. There were myriad similar factors to take into consideration when allocating cases and constituting benches. Worst of all was that some of them had reservations about sitting with judges and sometimes they even squabbled in open court.

Secondly, I also had to keep in mind the capacity of the judges in having a proper understanding of a subject so that we could the best decisions. In some instances, lawyers are not keen to appear before a judge for hearing. Some judges taking advantage of that opportunity would rise from the court although there was still more than one hour left. Some judges were not interested in a subject of law allocated to him and so he would perform his responsibility in a perfunctory manner. Some judges even complained to me that they were not given important jurisdictions without realizing whether he would be able to deal with the matter. Additionally, they would point out that a judge junior to him was given Division Bench power.

Some judges are reluctant to dispose of first appeals which involve power that is very important because right to property is involved in those appeals and lot of critical facts and law points are required to be assessed. I was left with very limited option to allocate business of this power since to hear these matters one must have a good grip on evaluation of evidence and law. Nowadays, there is a dearth of civil lawyers and judges. Earlier most prominent lawyers used to appear in those matters and every lawyer would not show an impudence to appear in those matters. So, I constituted Benches according to my estimation of judges who were suitable to deal with such matters without worrying about whether anyone took exception or not. I did not even consider the issue of seniority in taking these decisions.

Jail appeals are always neglected because poor litigants were not able to engage lawyers and judges do not like to dispose of a matter in the absence of lawyers. So, I gave priority to these appeals and gave the responsibility to almost all criminal Benches to hear them every Thursday. I also constituted benches consisting of additional judges with senior judges to dispose of jail appeals on weekends at home. One judge is physically challenged, and he could not sit on the court. I gave him the constitution of jail appeals with a senior, who would discuss with the senior in his chamber in case of necessity. These steps helped much in the disposal of undefended appeals. My second priority was to monitor the sections for which I allocated some officers to inspect the different sections regularly. I noticed that huge number of criminal miscellaneous cases and writ matters which infrastructures are pending in the section. I instructed an officer to direct section to supply list of those cases and then directed different Benches to dispose of them for reducing the docket. I also made surprise visits to the sections. This helped me in keeping the employees at their desks till the office hour ended. Thirdly, my attention was also focused on the process of promotions of employees and constituted a committee to recommend for promotions of senior employees if s/he had the requisite qualification.

Even though it may not be relevant at this point, but I must describe an incident which I had experienced. As per the Constitution and the practice being followed, the Chairman and the Members of the Public Service Commission (PSC), the Comptroller and Auditor General are required to take oath before the Chief Justice in the Supreme Court Judges’ lounge. On one occasion, Dr. Mohammad Siddique, the PSC Chairman, after taking oath of some members of the Commission conceded that after I had assumed the office of the Chief Justice the oath taking ceremony had become very elegant. Previously the Chief Justice alone administered the oath without participation of the other judges and they used to carry snacks for light refreshment. I instead directed that whenever any such program is arranged, it should be scheduled after 2:00 PM so that the other judges of the Appellate Division could attend. Since these were in effect state functions on the Supreme Court premises they were our guests and so they should be cordially received and entertained as honorable guests. I therefore ensured the presence of the all the judges of the Appellate Division and arranged refreshments for all the guests. After the formal function a very cordial interaction used to follow among the judges of the Apex Court and members and officers of the PSC.

Another crucial task of the Chief Justice is to oversee the administration of justice in the district courts. It is common practice prevailing now that some lawyers boycott judges on very nominal issues. If any officer was strict in granting bail, they would boycott that officer to press for his withdrawal. I was very firm in this regard and told the lawyers that if they took the law into their own hands I would not withdraw that officer. If they had any problem they must inform the Chief Justice and then I would consider their grievance. I did not succumb to their pressure and told them
that they would face inconvenience unless they attended the court because I would not withdraw a judge with a cloud over him from a station. If such an officer were sent to another district, the lawyers there would also adopt the
same posture. Normally in such circumstances I used to entrust one judge of the High Court Division who belonged to that district to amicably settle the dispute, and this process was very helpful.

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