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My lord, you are rich!




by Avijit Chatterjee in the TELEGRAPH July 15 , 2009


The government wants to bring in a law to make it mandatory for judges to declare their assets. Will it help root out corruption in the judiciary, asks Avijit Chatterjee


The recent spate of judicial scandals and the growing clamour for probity in public life have prompted the Centre to frame a law to make it mandatory for judges to declare their assets.

Union law minister Veerappa Moily has said that the government will soon bring legislation to make it mandatory for judges to disclose their assets. Such a law would put the judiciary on the same footing as bureaucrats and politicians.


However, the judiciary is not too keen on the idea. Chief Justice of India (CJI) K.G. Balakrishnan recently expressed his fears that judges would be subjected to “vexatious litigations and harassment” if their assets were made public.


At present, judges voluntarily declare their assets when taking their oath and the information is kept with the respective high court or the Supreme Court. The CJI has so far refused to place these declarations in the public domain, insisting that a law be enacted first to prevent the misuse of such information.


Prashant Bhushan, senior Supreme Court lawyer and convenor, Campaign for Judicial Accountability and Reform, however, scoffs at the idea that judges will be unduly harassed if people have access to information regarding their assets. “There is no legitimate reason for such fear unless they have something to hide. It only shows that the judges don’t want to declare their assets,” he says.


Bhushan adds that since they are public servants, judges should declare their assets to the public and not to the government. “Moreover, judges should not get away with a one-time declaration. They need to file their statements annually,” he says.


In January this year the Central Information Commission directed the Supreme Court to disclose information to one S.C. Agarwal, who had filed an application under the Right to Information Act, on whether or not Supreme Court judges declare their assets to the Chief Justice as required by their Code of Conduct.


But in its petition filed before the Delhi High Court, the apex court said, “The Code of Conduct is informal and purely voluntary and there is nothing under the Constitution or any law which requires the judges to declare their assets to the CJI.”


The Code of Conduct, passed in a full court meeting in May, 1997, and chaired by then Chief Justice of India, J.S. Verma, requires judges to declare to the Chief Justice their assets, including property or any other investment in the name of their spouse and dependents, if any. This was reiterated in 1999 at a conference of the chief justices.


“However, this rule is followed more in its breach than in practice as only a handful of judges declare their assets,” says former Supreme Court judge V. Krishna Iyer.


Former Union law minister and senior Supreme Court lawyer Shanti Bhushan says it is inexplicable that the judges of the Supreme Court are unwilling to declare their assets, particularly when they had directed candidates contesting elections to publicly declare their assets. “Should people not have the right to know the antecedents of judges who decide their fate every day,” he asks.


Though India is yet to frame a law that requires judges to declare their assets, many countries in the West do have such laws. For example, in the US, under the Ethics in Government Act, 1978, judges of the US Supreme Court and all other judicial officers are required to disclose their assets and income every year.


In the UK judges declare their assets to the Lord Chancellor’s department when taking their oath. But the information is protected under the Data Protection Act. “These personal details are not revealed to the public. In fact, there would be a huge uproar if such a demand is ever made,” says barrister and senior counsel Vijay S.T. Shankardass.


The demand for the declaration of judges’ assets gathered momentum in India after a series of scams involving the judiciary erupted last year. It started with the Justice Sabharwal case where former CJI Y.K. Sabharwal was charged by the Central Vigilance Commision in January 2008 with misusing his official position to promote the business interests of his sons. Though the Supreme Court refused to order any inquiry against Justice Sabharwal, the government belatedly started a probe after receiving petitions from eminent citizens.


The Ghaziabad provident fund scam dented the image of the judiciary further. In July 2008 the Uttar Pradesh police disclosed evidence on the alleged involvement of 34 judges in the fraudulent withdrawal of Rs 23 crore from the provident fund of class III and IV employees in the Ghaziabad judiciary. Those accused included one Supreme Court judge, eight judges of the Allahabad High Court, one each from the Uttarakhand and Calcutta High Courts and 23 lower court judges. The matter was referred to the CBI after the UP police expressed its inability to investigate high court judges in various states.


Another instance of corruption in the judiciary came to light in August, 2008 when a clerk of a senior Haryana law officer allegedly delivered Rs 15 lakh at the residence of Punjab and Haryana High Court judge Nirmaljit Singh Kaur. Later, it turned out that the money was meant for another judge, Nirmal Yadav, of the same court. Justice Yadav was recently given a clean chit by the attorney general of India.


In yet another sensational development, CJI Balakrishnan recommended the removal of Justice Soumitra Sen of the Calcutta High Court after he was allegedly found to have indulged in financial misconduct prior to his elevation as a judge in December, 2003. In a lawsuit between Steel Authority of India Ltd and Shipping Corporation of India, Sen is said to have received Rs 32 lakh in his capacity as the court appointed receiver and deposited the amount in his personal account. The government has constituted a three- member panel for Justice Sen’s impeachment.


Experts point out that given the extent of corruption in the judiciary, a mandatory declaration of assets alone may not be enough. “All these cases indicate a deep-rooted malaise in the judiciary which has enabled corrupt judges to function with impunity. The need of the hour is to set up an independent National Judicial Commission empowered to examine complaints against judges and take action against them,” says former Supreme Court judge P.B. Sawant.


Krishna Iyer feels an appointment commission, rather than the present system of a collegium of sitting judges choosing new judges, would make the selection of judges transparent. The commission should verify information relating to antecedents, family background, assets and business relations of the judges before their appointment, he adds.


That said, a law to ensure that judges declare their assets would be an encouraging start to efforts to clean up the judiciary. But will the government fly in the face of judicial disapproval and force the judges to divulge information about their assets?


Time, as they say, will tell.


The Telegraph - Calcutta (Kolkata) | Opinion | My Lord, you are rich!

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Tough move and the Govt, has to initiate.


And yes, Time as they say will tell. It will surely tell. :)

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