Bill sans will

In the din of an acrimonious and fruitless debate over the Lokpal Bill in Parliament this week, another important piece of legislation virtually got drowned.

The government introduced the Judicial Standards and Accountability Bill 2010 during the concluding stage of an extended winter session, with avowed objective of reforming higher judiciary to restore its fast-eroding credibility.

The need for reforming higher judiciary has been felt for a long time and it was on the agenda of successive governments. Without doubt, an independent and credible judiciary is the most important pillar of our democracy. But it has been plagued with problems of its own. In recent times, the performance and credibility of the judges have been under intense scrutiny and grave doubts have been cast on the conduct of some judges. The impeachment procedure provided in the Constitution has been found inadequate to deal with the problem of credibility.

The Bill lays down enforceable standards of conduct for judges. It requires judges to declare their and their family members’ assets and liabilities and establishes processes for removal of judges of the Supreme Court and High Courts.

It seeks to change the existing mechanism for investigation into allegations of misbehaviour or incapacity of judges; change the process of their removal and enable minor disciplinary measures to be taken against them. The highlight of the draft legislation is that it proposes to establish a National Judicial Oversight Committee, a Complaints Scrutiny Panel and also an Investigation Committee. Ordinary citizens can prefer complaints against judges. These are welcome.

But, the composition proposed for the Oversight Committee does not adequately provide for the independence for two reasons. First, the judicial members will be appointed by the Chief Justice of India  while the sole non-judicial member and the Chairperson will be appointed by the President on the recommendation of the Union Cabinet.

Second, the inclusion of the Attorney General in this committee is flawed on grounds of conflict of interests. More important, the two together can also seriously erode the judiciary’s independence as they shift the balance in favour of the executive, which cannot be an objective of any judicial reform measure.

Shockingly, the Bill has no proposal to end the opaque nature of appointing judges, which is perhaps at the root of the present credibility problem facing higher judiciary. It is doubtful, therefore, if an already vulnerable UPA government can shore up the required two-thirds majority in Parliament to push through this half-baked reform measure.

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