No Reform in Procedure for Allotment of Cases: Supreme Court

On 6th July, 2018, the Supreme Court laid to rest yet another debate on the question of judicial accountability. In the case of Shanti Bhushan vs. Supreme Court of India and Ors. MANU/SC/0702/2018, a petition filed by Senior Advocate and Former Law Minister, Mr. Shanti Bhushan, it had been contended that concentration of unfettered powers in a single person was anti-democratic. Thus, reforms in the process of determination of were sought.  While conceding that the Chief Justice of India was indeed the Master of Roster, it was argued that the process of allocating cases should be determined by the collegium of senior most judges instead of the CJI alone so as to prevent abuse of power. While the 2 judge bench of Hon’ble Justices A.K. Sikri and Ashok Bhushan decided not to act upon the said petition, they did shed considerable light on judicial accountability and the qualities that need to be possessed by judges. The opinion of the judges have been summarized as follows –

  • On the petitioner’s contention that the role of CJI as the ‘master of roster’ was not based on any constitutional provision, Justice Sikri expressly acknowledged that the Constitution is silent on the role of Chief Justice as the Master of the Roster. However, he added that this role was “based upon healthy practice and sound conventions which have been developed over a period of time and that stands engrafted in the Supreme Court Rules.”
  • Reliance was placed on the cases of Campaign for Judicial Accountability and Reforms vs. Union of India & Anr. And the Asok Pande Case which affirmed the powers of the CJI as the master of the roster. Further, these cases reaffirmed that the CJI was an institution in himself and, thus, his administrative power of allocating cases cannot be delegated to the Collegium.
  • It was observed that –

This kind of system which is devised for the appointment of Judges cannot be replicated when it comes to the role of the Chief Justice as Master of Roster. We have to keep in mind that the Chief Justice, as the head of the Supreme Court of India, and the Chief Justices of the High Courts, have to perform many other functions, on the administrative side, in their capacities as Chief Justices. Framing of the Roster and constituting the Benches is one among them. In case the expression ‘Chief Justice’ is to be interpreted as ‘Collegium’, it would be difficult to have smooth day to day functioning of the Supreme Court, or for that matter the High Courts.

  • However, Justice Sikri reiterated the role of the CJI as that of being ‘first amongst the equals” and thereby clarified that the bench to which a case has been allotted will have complete dominion over the case.
  • The Bench further outlined the qualities to be possessed by a judge such as –

– Wisdom

– Patience

– Fairness and Balance

– Independence of Mind

– Knowledge of the Law

– Moral Courage or Fortitude

– Sense of Practical Reality

– Commitment to Administration of Justice in Accordance with Law

Thus, the Supreme Court has once again refused to entertain reforms to the CJI’s power as master of the roster as against transparency in the procedure of allocating cases. A huge furor had been created in this regard in a press conference on January 12, 2018 wherein the 4 senior most judges of the Supreme Court had expressed concerns about this very issue. However, status quo has been maintained as of now.

Full text of this judgment can be found at – Shanti Bhushan vs. Supreme Court of India and Ors. MANU/SC/0702/2018