Case adjourned


T

he judges of the Supreme Court have done well to agree to make full public disclosure of their assets and liabilities and those of their kith and kin. The decision, taken by all the judges led by Chief Justice K G Balakrishnan last week, acknowledges the need for transparency and accountability in the conduct of members of the judiciary. It is certain to increase the respect for and credibility of the judiciary in the public eye. The reluctance of judges to make public their financial status, as indicated by the Supreme Court’s challenging of a Central Information Commission’s initiative in this respect and various statements of the chief justice, had created apprehensions about their commitment to openness  and the principle of equality before law. The decision was almost thrust on them by the growing debate on the matter in the country, involving the public, the media, former judges and parliament and the action of some high court judges who supported the idea of disclosure of assets. The forced withdrawal by the government of a bill that provided for disclosure of assets but exempted it from any query or enquiry also made it clear that half-measures would not be acceptable.

Even the present decision of the judges does not make the disclosure open to any query. This will limit the usefulness of the disclosure and defeat its purpose. The judges may rightly be wary of the potential for misuse of the disclosure but the judiciary in the country has enough powers to deal with it. The government must come out with legislation which will make full disclosure possible and mandatory without any conditions attached to it. Legislation is necessary because the judges’ decision is not legally binding and all of them need not abide by it in future. It does not also cover high court judges. They can now act on the basis of the Supreme Court judges’ decision, as Justice Balakrishnan has said. But the law should create a framework and lay down procedures for disclosure by all members of the higher judiciary, which will satisfy the best norms of openness and accountability. The law can also prescribe deterrent measures and penalties for mala fide or flippant use of the information provided by the judges.

The judiciary’s standing, which is high, will be further strengthened by its acceptance of a system that mandates its responsibilities in a democratic and open society.

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