There is no reason for the judiciary to be perturbed by the Judicial Standards and Accountability Bill 2010, cleared by the Union Cabinet earlier this week, because the proposed legislation seeks to neither curb its independence nor impose the will of the executive on its functioning. In fact, the draft Bill is in keeping with the growing popular demand for transparency and accountability in public institutions — something that our courts themselves have emphasised on several occasions. The need for a fresh legislation arose after it became clear that the Judges Inquiry Act of 1968 — now lapsed — had failed to adequately address issues related to perceived acts of impropriety committed by judges. Even if such incidents have been more an exception than the rule, the guilty have gone virtually unpunished. For instance, there has not been a single instance where a judge has had to make an exit after being impeached simply because the procedures are so cumbersome and often lead to partisan voting. While the new Bill does not make impeachment easier, it at least provides for various levels of punishment that did not previously exist. If the Bill is approved, errant judges can be censured and work taken away from them. In exceptional cases, they can be asked to put in their papers. The best part about the Bill is that it will establish a mechanism for aggrieved citizens to file complaints against judges. At the same time the Bill is fair to the judges since the quantum of punishment will depend on the nature of impropriety. Apprehensions that the executive will now have a larger say in judicial administration because of the National Judicial Oversight Committee that the Bill envisages to look into complaints against members of the higher judiciary are entirely misplaced. The proposed five-member panel will have a Supreme Court judge and the Chief Justice of a High Court who will be selected in consultation with the Chief Justice of India. Besides, the committee will be headed by a retired Chief Justice of India. Since the serving Chief Justice of India will play a crucial role in deciding the composition of the panel, the member nominated by the executive will have little scope to play mischief.
There may be some merit in the counter-argument that the earlier Judges Inquiry Act of 1968 failed not because of lacunae in the law but the failure of the executive to ensure the impeachment of errant judges. Either the parliamentarians failed to muster the requisite number of signatories to an appeal for impeachment or, when they did succeed, the treasury benches stalled the effort in Parliament. But that is precisely why a new law is needed to ensure misconduct does not go unpunished. Since the other solution — a complete overhaul of the system of impeachment — is an elaborate affair that will take time, why should anyone object if at least immediate concerns of ensuring accountability and transparency by the judiciary are met? The proposed law deserves to be welcomed by all.