Former Chief Justice of India (CJI) Uday Umesh Lalit on March 18 said the collegium was the "ideal system" for appointment of judges to the top court and High Courts in the country.
His comments come in the backdrop of Union Law Minister Kiren Rijiju raising questions over the collegium system.
Justice Lalit, who demitted office as the 49th CJI on November 8, 2022, also said judiciary was completely independent of the executive and while the Supreme Court was "fantastic", there is "tremendous area for improvement".
Speaking at the India Today Conclave, Justice Lalit emphasised that the collegium system enables the selection of judges by a body which is reviewing performances at the "grass-root" and the process of recommendation by the apex court body is through a consultative route.
While recommending a judge, not only is performance but the opinion of other judges as well as IB report is also considered in the process and a new regime of appointment can only be "put in place in a manner known to law", he said.
"According to me, collegium system is the ideal system... You have persons whose entire profile is seen by the high court. Not by 1-2 persons but by repeatedly as an institution. Similarly, advocates who practice before high courts; the judges who form the body, they see their performances every day. So who are supposed to be better positioned to see merit of the talent? Somebody sitting as an executive here or somebody who is seeing the grass root level performance, say in Kochi or Manipur or Andhra or Ahmedabad?" he said.
ALSO READ | Centre returned 10 proposals reiterated by SC Collegium: Law Minister Kiren Rijiju in RS
Justice Lalit asserted that the “system is geared to have best possible talent” and not all recommendations from the High Courts are accepted as for the duration that he formed part of the collegium as “judge no.2”, while 255 judges were appointed, 70-80 proposed names from high courts were “rejected” and around 40 names were “still under consideration by the government”.
"We see the judgments. we see the kind of performance over a period of time. It is after that that the five judges of the Supreme Court then consider whether the man is worthy or not. At the same time, we are guided by the advice given by what we call the consultee judges... At the same time, the version coming from the executive. It may have something from the profile of the man.
"There may be some kind of complaint or some dark corner in the persona which we are not aware of. So that part of the consultation through IB report is also placed before us. It is after that the decision is taken," Justice Lalit said.
The former CJI also maintained that it was not the collegium which faltered on the non-appointment of senior advocate Saurabh Kirpal as a judge of the Delhi High Court and the fault lied elsewhere.
"Collegium did not falter on Saurabh Kirpal's case. The collegium did make a recommendation, collegium did reiterate. So how do you say collegium system is bad? The fault lies somewhere else, if at all," he stated.
Justice Lalit further shared he did not "subscribe" to the theory of courts becoming "executive courts", remarking that it was very easy for an outsider to criticise and people jump in immediately to make generalised statements.
"All the courts are quite independent and you will actually see it in the process. Two matters before me - Siddique Kappan, Teesta Setalvad - both of them were released on bail. Another matter, Vinod Dua, he was also granted relief in the matter. Third one, Varavara Rao, again we granted him relief," he said.
"We jump in immediately to make a generalised statement. It is not so. The courts are completely independent. It is very difficult for the judges and very easy for somebody from outside to criticise," stated the former CJI.
In response to having represented Home Minister Amit Shah as his lawyer in the Sohrabuddin case during his time as lawyer, Justice Lalit said he represented persons from various political parties and to him, it is a professional assignment.
"As a lawyer I represented 18 chief ministers in different matters... I have represented a number of them. I have not met anyone of them. It was pure and simple professional assignment. To me, it was like appearing in any other matter," he said.
He shared that the 2G scam case, in which he appeared as a special public prosecutor for the CBI before the trial court, was his most difficult case on account of the "sheer bulk of the matter".
Justice Lalit was the second CJI to be directly elevated to the Supreme Court from the bar.
He also weighed in on the issues of retired judges taking up executive posts without a cooling-off period, saying it "depends on the individual" but he would rather "try something else in another quarter" and when asked to define Supreme Court today in three words, he said, "Fantastic court yet tremendous area for improvement."
ALSO READ | Supreme Court wrong in revealing sensitive reports: Kiren Rijiju
"I put in 32 years into practice as a lawyer... there is some way to give back to society that is why I accepted judgeship. Another form in which I wish to give back to society is to teach law students," he said.
Justice Lalit said "concerted action" was taken to reduce the pendency of cases during his brief 74-day tenure as CJI.
He also cleared the air around the allegedly unusual Saturday-listing of an appeal against a Bombay High Court judgement on the acquittal of G.N. Saibaba in an alleged Maoists link case, saying the case was posted for urgent hearing following an order passed a day before on a "mentioning" heard by another bench.
"None of those persons — neither Justice M.R. Shah nor Justice Bela Trivedi (judges who heard the case) — nor me are aware of the intricacies of the matter (when it was allowed to be listed). We simply listed the matter the next day," he said.
Justice Lalit further stated there are certain statutes like PMLA and NDPS that impose stringent conditions on grant of bail and until these laws are challenged, the courts are bound to proceed on that basis.