Former Supreme Court judge Ruma Pal described the increasing tribunalisation (the executive decision to set up specialised tribunals) as a serious encroachment on the judiciary’s independence. The judiciary, she said, had been “timorous” in not fighting these tribunals that force it to share its adjudicating powers with the executive.
Pal, a widely respected jurist said that “The process of appointment of judges to the superior courts was possibly the best kept secret of the country. The criticism of appointments by the executive to the judiciary applied equally well to appointments made by judges to the judiciary.”
The “mystique” of the process, the small base from which the selections were made and the “secrecy and confidentiality” ensured that the “process may, on occasions, make wrong appointments and, worse still, lend itself to nepotism”, she said.
An indiscreet comment or a chance rumour was enough to rule out a person’s perceived suitability for the post, she said. Friendships and obligations also sometimes colour recommendations, she added.
Consensus in the collegium is often arrived at by “trade-offs”, she said, with “disastrous effects”. Pal also lamented the growing “sycophancy” and “lobbying” which colour these appointments.
These appointments, she said, should be done by a judicial commission of non-partisan members. Unless the process is made transparent and the resource pool widened and some objective criteria laid down, “arbitrariness” in appointments will remain, she said.
There has been a good deal of talk in recent years on the judicial accountability and standards bill but it is still pending. It proposes a judicial commission made of people from all walks of life and strong representation from the executive.
Pal was delivering the fifth V.M. Tarkunde memorial lecture here. Tarkunde, considered the father of the human rights movement in the country, was a lawyer in the Bombay Bar. He became a high court judge but later gave up the post to don black robes again. Tarkunde was never elevated to the Supreme Court because of extraneous reasons, speakers at the lecture said. His landmark judgment, that a person was entitled to a passport as a matter of right under Article 21 of the Constitution (right to life and liberty), was later adopted by the Supreme Court in the Maneka Gandhi case.
Pal also listed several sins of the judiciary. She called for a judicially “embedded” strong mechanism to ensure accountability. Any non-judicial mechanism will impinge on the judiciary’s independence, she said. The current solutions adopted by the judiciary — which give the CJI only the power to transfer, or not allot work, to erring judges — were inadequate and ad hoc, she said.