Tarun Reflex

November 10, 2008

Your Honour , Time to end your Lordship !

If you pay peanuts, you get monkeys. This universally recognised HR principle applies to judges as well. Or so it seems from the case made by Chief Justice of India K G Balakrishnan for at least a three-fold hike in the salaries of judges, in the wake of the sixth pay commission’s bonanza for their counterparts in the executive.
Nobody can quarrel with the proposition that better emoluments would help the bench attract better talent from the bar. And make the existing judges less vulnerable to the temptation, for instance, of wangling consumer goods as one from the Supreme Court and several from high courts are alleged to have done in the Ghaziabad provident fund scam.
Much as judges are justified in seeking higher salaries, consumers of justice, in turn, are entitled to demand a better service from them. For all the good they do in checking executive wrongs and resolving disputes, Indian judges still betray a paternalistic mindset which is out of tune with the temper of the times. Few have come to terms with the humbling fact that, rather than being regarded as benevolent divinities, they are increasingly assessed in terms of a service provider.
Weary of the deficient service they routinely get from courts (such as delays and inconsistencies), litigants are growing impatient with the haughty air cultivated by judges under the guise of protecting their independence. The tension between the recalcitrant service provider and the aggrieved consumer is evident from the manner in which the judiciary has been resisting reforms, howsoever overdue.
Here’s a wish list of reforms which the judiciary has been called upon to adopt in recent years in order to become a better service provider.
Replace excessive reverence in courts with a business-like work culture 
Two years ago, the bar council of India, the regulatory body for lawyers, adopted a resolution asking them to give up the colonial practice of addressing judges as “My Lord” or “Your Lordship”. It said that Supreme Court and high court judges could instead be addressed as “Your Honour” or “Honourable Court” and subordinate court judges as “Sir”.
Though the then CJI, Y K Sabharwal, welcomed the proposal (at least for the record), there is yet no sign of the change which could well have helped judges assume the outlook of a service provider. Lawyers have been loathe to implement the bar council’s resolution lest they be misconstrued as being disrespectful to judges.
Mercifully, some of the judges have taken the initiative to get rid of the anachronism of excessive reverence. Two members of that miniscule minority, Justice Ravindra Bhat and Justice S Muralidhar of the Delhi high court, actually put out a request in the daily “cause list” (roster of cases heard by them) requesting lawyers not to address him as lords. Justice K Chandru of the Madras high court said it to the face of lawyers to stop speaking in a fawning manner. “Make your ‘humble submissions’ before God; before me it is enough if you make simple submissions,” he told a lawyer.
Be more transparent 
The judiciary has long been notorious for its secrecy about how it appoints judges and how it disciplines the delinquent ones, if at all. Not surprisingly, judges have reacted to RTI — enacted in 2005 — as though it was an assault on their autonomy.
On an RTI query, the Supreme Court, for instance, refused to disclose whether its judges have been, in keeping with its own resolution passed in 1997, periodically filing declarations of their assets. Having first claimed that his office fell outside the scope of RTI, Justice Balakrishnan floated the theory that none of the constitution office holders could be held to account under that law.
While RTI exempts the applicant from giving any reasons, the Delhi high court framed a rule stating that only an affected party can seek information. Though RTI specifies the 10 categories of information exempt from disclosure, the high court added another category under its rules, stating in effect that any information that was not already in public domain would be withheld.
Follow ‘case flow management’ rules laid down by Supreme Court 
On the recommendations made by an expert committee set by it, the apex court in 2005 came up with a slew of measures to quicken the process of dispute resolution. The promise made by the judiciary to mend its ways has, however, turned out to be as illusory as those made by politicians at the time of elections.
Take the measure requiring high courts to divide writ petitions into three categories depending on their urgency: fast track, normal track and slow track. It fixed deadlines for each category: the petitions on the fast track were meant to be disposed of within six months, those on the normal track within a year and the remaining within two years. This elaborate exercise has yielded little benefit to consumers of justice. For, even three years after the Supreme Court fixed those time limits, none of the high courts is abiding by them. Nor has the Supreme Court set an example to high courts in timely disposal of cases.
Cut down on vacations 
In the name of reducing arrears in the Supreme Court, the government introduced a Bill this year to increase the strength of its judges from 25 to 30. The parliamentary standing committee on law and justice recommended that the court should also do away with lengthy vacations to boost its productivity.
This is despite an incremental reform made by the apex court in 2006 following a public appeal made by the then President, Abdul Kalam, to cut down on holidays. It reduced its summer vacation from eight weeks to seven weeks. That there is still ample scope to increase its working days is evident from the fact that the Supreme Court reopened last week after an eight-day Diwali break. Before that, in the same month of October, it had another eight-day vacation and that was for Dussehra. It will next shut for Christmas for two weeks.
The excuses cited for such a generous vacation policy are that judges are otherwise overworked and that they need to take time off to catch up with legal developments around the world. Litigants, however, find it incongruous that while courts frequently break for long vacations, they are being made to wait for years to get their due. It’s time the judiciary learnt lessons from other service providers and stopped taking its consumers for granted.

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