Taking a harsh view over a petition casting aspersions on Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra, a Supreme Court bench expressed anguish over an emerging "trend of targeting judges" and indicated that it may impose heavy punitive fines against those indulging in unnecessary 'judge-bashing'.
A charitable organisation Bhartiya Matdata Sangathan, in its plea, has alleged that in disregard of constitutional morality, a relative of the CJI, who is an MP from Odisha, was practising as a senior lawyer in the courts and tribunals.
A bench, comprising the CJI and justices AM Khanwilkar and DY Chandrachud, had on 9 July reserved its verdict on a PIL filed by BJP leader Ashwini Upadhyay seeking to ban legislators from practising as advocates.
Taking strong note of the interim plea of the organisation in the PIL on which the verdict has already been reserved, the bench said, "This has become a trend of targeting judges. This trend must stop. If you have to make the allegation, please make them at the outset so that we can deal with them."
Justice Chandrachud did not agree to the submissions of some lawyers that the organisation be asked to pay a fine of Rs 50,000, Rs 1 Lakh and Rs 5 lakh for making such scandalous allegations and said, "I think that Rs 5 lakh is not the upper limit. I was thinking of (imposing) Rs 25 lakh".
Deprecating the practice of targeting judges, the bench said, "ultimately, it (allegation) affects the institution".
The bench, which passed over the matter thrice during the day, refused to accept the unconditional apology tendered by the general secretary of the organisation and told him that Attorney General KK Venugopal was suggesting that a case of contempt was being made out.
"Are you the general secretary of the organisation? Did you pass the resolution before filing this? Do you take the responsibility of filing this?" the bench asked. It also asked the lawyer, who is the office bearer of the organisation, whether he had taken any legal advice before filing the application.
"There are judgements which say that the advocate-on-records (AoRs) are responsible for filing such an application," the bench said. Venugopal said that the AoRs are responsible for all the filings in the case. Senior advocate Shekhar Naphade, appearing for one of the parties, however, said that it appeared that the AoR was not aware of such filing in the case and suggested imposing of a fine of Rs 50,000 on the organisation.
Venugopal then referred to the "great tragedy" in Kerala and said the cost, to be imposed in the case, should be deposited in the Kerala relief fund, besides suggesting that a case of contempt was made out in the present case.
The bench, at the end of the hearing, asked the organisation to file the names of its office bearers on 27 August and consult the Attorney General in the meantime on the issue as to how much it can pay as costs for filing such an application. The bench said it was hearing a PIL and there was no need of naming a lawyer just because he had once appeared in a matter against the organisation or its lawyers.
It agreed to the submission of Venugopal that such kind of allegations are "extraordinary" and "unheard of" and needed to be dealt with sternly. "Let the matter be listed on Monday (27 August). The organisation shall disclose the names of its members," the bench said.
As mentioned above, the apex court had reserved its verdict on the PIL which had alleged that a lawmaker drew a salary from the public exchequer and a salaried employee was debarred by the Bar Council of India from practising in the courts of law. The petition said that while a public servant cannot practice as an advocate, legislators are practising in various courts which violated Article 14 of the Constitution.
The plea said the issue is a matter of concern to both the judiciary and the legislature as most of the lawmaker-advocates were involved in active practice of law, despite receiving salaries and other perquisites drawn on the public exchequer. The petition also pointed out that the MPs have the power of voting on the impeachment of judges of the Supreme Court and the high courts.
SC's tough stance on the issue has ample precedents
Supreme Court's stern view on criticism against judges and rulings is hardly a first. However, the court's stance is likely to trigger a fresh debate at a time when transparency in the judiciary and the disquiet within the judiciary has been in the news. Earlier in July, the Supreme Court observed that discussions, debates and criticism of verdicts in the age of technology had become quite common. This trend, in turn, threatened the independence of the judiciary, the court said.
A bench of justices AK Sikri and Ashok Bhushan, in their separate but concurring verdicts, said that the Chief Justice of India is the 'master of roster' and has the "prerogative" to allocate cases to different benches. It observed that the sole strength of the judiciary lay in public confidence and trust.
Justice Sikri said it has become a "regular feature" that even laymen, who are constitutionally illiterate, enter into debate and evaluate the outcome of cases influenced by their emotions, rather than legal or constitutional principles. The observations came while the court was hearing a petition filed by senior advocate Shanti Bhushan, seeking clarification on the administrative authority of the Chief Justice of India.
The petition was filed in the aftermath of an unprecedented press conference by four out of the five members of the previous collegium to accuse CJI Misra of breaching rules and "selectively assigning" cases that have "far-reaching consequences for the nation" to "junior judges." The judges raised a host of issues, generally indicating that all was not well within the judiciary. But their primary contention remained on the way the CJI exercised his administrative powers and allotted crucial cases to benches, apparently bypassing these senior most judges.
In March 2015, although in a completely different premise, the Supreme Court had once again expressed its displeasure about criticism of the judiciary and rapped the Gujarat government for joining the bandwagon of 'judge bashing'. The apex court imposed a fine of Rs 5 lakh on the Gujarat government for compulsorily retiring an honest judicial officer, alleging that she had demanded Rs 20,000 in illegal gratification, The Hindu reported. While passing an order in favour of the judicial officer, a bench of justices BS Chauhan and Ibrahim Kalifull said, 'Judge bashing' had become a pastime of some people. "There is a growing tendency of maligning the reputation of judicial officers by disgruntled elements who fail to secure an order … they desire."
"For the functioning of democracy, an independent judiciary, to dispense justice without fear and favour, is paramount. The judiciary should not be reduced to the position of flies in the hands of wanton boys," the bench added.
In July 2007, while hearing a contempt case against one Apu Banik for criticising judges and making sweeping remarks against the judiciary, said that the ultimate victim of an attack on a judge's reputation is the institution. "There can be no quarrel with the proposition that anyone who intends to tarnish the image of the judiciary should not be allowed to go unpunished," the judges held according to The Hindu. "While fair and temperate criticism of the court even if strong, may not be actionable, but attributing improper motives or tending to bring judges or courts into hatred and contempt or obstructing directly or indirectly with the functioning of courts is serious contempt," the court said.
With inputs from agencies
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Updated Date: Aug 21, 2018 16:14:40 IST