Concerns about the Chief Justice’s Role in Judicial Development

A recent judicial development has sparked worries about the Chief Justice of India’s (CJI) authority and powers in influencing judicial rulings. The Union of India’s recall suit against a judgement on the right to default bail, which was followed by an interim order from the Court of the CJI, has emphasised the need to evaluate the constitutional framework and the extent of the CJI’s administrative powers.

An Extraordinary Decision with an Unusual Twist

  • Protecting the Right to Default Bail: In Ritu Chhabria v. Union of India, the Supreme Court’s Division Bench recognised an undertrial’s right to be released on default bail if the inquiry exceeds the statutory time limit. It chastised the practise of charging accused people despite incomplete investigations and emphasised that the filing of a preliminary charge-sheet does not preclude the right to bail.
  • Surprising Recall Application: The Supreme Court of India heard a recall application filed by the Union of India against the Ritu Chhabria decision. This action differed from the standard procedure of filing a review petition before the same Bench. Even though it had no obvious connection to the case, the interim order issued by the Court of the CJI effectively delayed the Division Bench’s ruling.

Concerns about the CJI’s Role

  • Intra-Court appeal without Legislative or Constitutional Support: Concerns have been raised concerning the absence of a legal or constitutional basis for such appeals in the recall application before a separate Bench, including the CJI. This practise is similar to bench fishing or forum shopping in that it creates a mechanism that lacks legal legitimacy.
  • Administration Powers of the Chief Justice: While all Supreme Court judges have equal judicial powers, the CJI has additional administration powers as the ‘Master of the Roster.’ These abilities include the ability to form Benches and assign matters for reconsideration. However, within a Bench, the CJI’s vote has no more weight than the votes of the other judges.
  • Judicial Equality Concerns: While the CJI has traditionally written minority opinions, the latest interim order raises questions about the scope of the CJI’s impact on judicial judgements. Other countries, including the United Kingdom, Australia, and Canada, have systems in place where judges jointly exert power, reflecting the Court’s collective might.

Cause for Concern

  • Instances of misuse: Records of infirmities and irregularities in case assignments have raised concerns about the CJI’s possible misuse of administrative authority. The endless nature of these powers makes establishing limitations difficult, emphasising the importance of transparency and checks.
  • The Importance of Checks and Balances: To preserve the integrity of the courts, it is critical to limit the CJI’s authority as the ‘Master of the Roster.’ Case assignment computerization and the removal of discretionary powers from the CJI can alleviate concerns about undue influence and ensure a fair and unbiased judicial process.

Administrative Powers of the CJI

  • Constitution of Benches: The CJI has the authority to form numerous Benches within the Supreme Court, including both Division Benches and larger Constitution Benches. The CJI has the authority to assign judges to individual cases and to distribute the workload among the judges.
  • Assignment of Matters: The CJI has the authority to assign specific cases or references for adjudication to separate Benches. This includes assigning issues to appropriate Benches depending on topic area, complexity, and other pertinent aspects.
  • Review of Matters: The CJI may refer cases or matters to a wider Bench for review. Through the assessment of earlier judgements, the CJI can maintain uniformity in judicial declarations, settle conflicting decisions, or clarify legal principles.
  • Administrative Decision-Making: The CJI is in charge of making administrative decisions pertaining to the operation of the court, such as the allocation of courtrooms, the assignment of court workers, and the management of facilities and resources.
  • Judicial Officer Appointment: The Chief Justice plays a vital role in the appointment and transfer of judges to various high courts and other tribunals. This includes taking part in the collegium system, which entails proposing eligible candidates for judicial appointments.
  • Judicial Administration: The CJI is in charge of the judiciary’s entire operation, including defining standards for court procedures, case administration, and fostering efficiency in the delivery of justice. The CJI collaborates closely with other judges, court employees, and stakeholders to ensure that the legal system runs well.

@the end

While the CJI’s administrative powers are vital for the Court’s effective operation, they must be exercised in accordance with constitutional principles and established legal procedures. To protect the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary, it is critical to establish clear mechanisms and limit discretionary authority.

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