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Of a code of conduct

Print edition : Feb 19, 2000

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AT a conference of Chief Justices of the High Courts held in New Delhi in December 1999, the Chief Justice of India, Dr. A.S. Anand, initiated a debate on "in-house procedures" to make the judiciary accountable. The conference unanimously resolved to ado pt the "Restatement of Values of Judicial Life", a code of conduct, which had been adopted at a full court meeting of the Supreme Court on May 7, 1997.

The code lists 16 principles to be followed by every Judge in order to reaffirm people's faith in the impartiality of the judiciary. One of the items (No. 16) of the code requires a judge to practise a degree of aloofness consistent with the dignity of h is (or her) office. Another item (No. 11) bars judges from accepting gifts of hospitality except from family members, close relatives and friends.

Every Judge must be conscious of the fact that he or she is under the public gaze and there should be no act or omission by him or her which is unbecoming of the high office, and the public esteem in which that office is held, the code says. This prescri ption is seen to be wide enough to prevent any misdemeanour on the part of a Judge, even one that is not listed in the code. What it means is that it is the public perception of the conduct of a Judge that matters, rather than whatever defence a Judge mi ght put forth in order to face any allegations levelled against him or her in public.

Not contesting any election, avoiding close association with individual members of the Bar, not permitting any member of the immediate family or any other close relative to appear before him or her in court, and not associating in any manner with a cause to be dealt with by that relative who is member of the Bar are some of the prescriptions.

The code prescribes that no member of the Judge's family who is a member of the Bar shall be permitted to share the Judge's residence or other facilities for professional work. A Judge should not hear and decide a matter concerning a company in which he or she holds shares or stocks. Also, he or she should not engage directly or indirectly in trade or business, or accept contributions, or actively associate with the raising of any fund for any purpose.

Though the 16-point code is silent on the issue, the conference of Chief Justices had unanimously resolved that every Judge should declare his or her assets in the form of real estate or other investments, held in his or her name or in the name of a spou se or a dependent. Thereafter, whenever any acquisition of a substantial nature is made, it should be disclosed within a reasonable time. The declaration should be made to the Chief Justice of the High Court. The Chief Justice himself or herself should m ake a similar declaration.

A report submitted by a committee constituted by the Chief Justice of India in October 1997 regarding the "in-house" procedure for taking suitable remedial action against judges violating this code and the universally accepted values of judicial life has not been made public. The Chief Justice of India, A.S. Anand, has called for the circulation of this report among the Chief Justices of the High Courts. The Chief Justices are expected to ascertain the responses of the Judges of the respective High Cour ts and send these, along with their own response, on the code to the CJI within a period of eight weeks (counted from the first week of December 1999). The CJI should convey the information to the government.

According to informed sources, it has been set down that in the High Courts, the Chief Justice and two other senior Judges will form a committee to hear and decide any complaints against errant Judges. A Judge in the Delhi High Court told Frontline that the committee will decide the 'remedial action' to be taken against any errant judges on a case-to-case basis. "No uniform punishment is contemplated," he said. "After all, judges would be reasonable enough to listen to the committee and make amen ds."

Union Law Minister Ram Jethmalani has expressed the opinion that the code of conduct lacks sanction in the absence of any provision to impose penalties on those who violate the code. He described the code as "inadequate".

A draft bill prepared by the Committee on Judicial Accountability (CJA) provides for a five-member National Judicial Commission (NJC) consisting of retired judges or senior advocates who would be independent of the government and the higher judiciary. Th e chairman would be appointed by the full collegium of the Supreme Court, and the government. The Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha, the collegium of the Chief Justices of the High Courts and the Bar Council of India each will nominate one member . The NJC would have investigative powers as well, and its powers would be binding on the government, according to the draft. However, it remains to be seen whether such an NJC will ensure accountability, impeccable conduct and transparency in the higher judiciary.

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