The participants also called for deletion of Sections 9 to 16 of the Bill dealing with the forming of a "Complaints Scrutiny Panel" besides the Oversight Committee
With the Lokpal Bill stuck in limbo, a civil society-led national consultation on judicial accountability was held here on Tuesday in which several shortcomings in the Judicial Standards and Accountability Bill, 2012, as passed by the Lok Sabha were discussed.
The consultation was organised by the National Campaign for Peoples’ Right to Information (NCPRI), Media Information and Communication Centre of India, Inclusive Media for Change, Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative and the Accountability Initiative. Former Delhi High Court Chief Justice A. P. Shah, lawyer Prashant Bhushan, former Chief Information Commissioner Wajahat Habibullah and RTI activist Subhash Chandra Agrawal, besides NCPRI activists Shekhar Singh, Nikhil Dey, Venkatesh Nayak and Anjali Bhardwaj took part in the deliberations.
While Section 18 of the Bill envisages a five-member Oversight Committee to handle complaints received against judges, participants at the consultation differed with the Government on its composition, suggesting instead that a jurist and an eminent citizen selected through wider consultation be on the committee.
The participants also called for deletion of Sections 9 to 16 of the Bill dealing with the forming of a “Complaints Scrutiny Panel” besides the Oversight Committee.
Justice Shah opined that the Complaints Scrutiny Panel which is proposed to be formed at the Supreme Court and at each High Court comprising serving judges to do preliminary vetting of complaints would not be able to function properly.
“This is a flawed structure. Judges of the same court will not be able to impartially dispose of complaints against one of the colleagues in the same court,” he said. Instead, it was suggested that the Oversight Committee should make a prima facie view on the complaint, and then send the complaint for detailed inquiry.
The question of transparency and how the media should report complaints against judges also came up for discussion. While it was suggested that until a prima facie view was taken about the complaint it should not be reported, a few persons including Justice A. P. Shah suggested that only the final order in the complaint should be reported.
According to Justice Shah, the bulk of complaints being received now were frivolous in nature and were initiated by people with grouses against judges. So reporting of complaints prematurely would make it impossible for judges to work. He also suggested that the one-year-jail term for frivolous complainants be done away with, as it would only complicate the Bill.
The discussants also sought deletion of a provision in the bill mandating in-camera proceedings and another section blocking the supply of documents relating to the complaint. They also shot down a proposal that the prima facie view should come as a reasoned order, stating that this would consume too much time of the Oversight Committee.
Cooling off period
A two-year cooling off period was also mooted for all judges post-retirement, when they would not be able to take up any other job. A meeting with Law Minister Salman Khurshid to push the civil society views on the Bill and a plan to have eminent citizens write to the Government to push the Bill were discussed.
Speaking towards the end, a sceptical Jan Lokpal campaigner Prashant Bhushan remarked: “The resistance to this Bill is from the judiciary. This Government is not in a position to take on the judiciary now. The Judicial Standards Bill will also meet the fate of the Lokpal Bill.”
To which Shekhar Singh quipped: “While we wait for Prashant to bring in a change of Government, let’s go ahead improving the present Bill.”