Fearing criticism, the government has decided to drop a clause in a proposed new Bill that provides for a three-year jail sentence for anyone found guilty of “attempting to make public” the details of judges assets.
The Declaration of Judges Assets Bill, 2009 is likely to be presented in Parliament in the ongoing session, after it is approved by the Cabinet. It proposes to make it mandatory for Supreme Court and high court judges to declare wealth details each year, but these would not be made public.
The Law Ministry is understood to have taken the consent of the Chief Justice of India on the draft of the Bill, but has deleted the controversial clause.
The Bill, if passed in its present form, would come to the aid of the judiciary by keeping it out of the purview of the Right to Information (RTI) Act.
“The draft of the Bill is being finalised and will undergo many changes. Finally, a balanced approach will be taken. Remember, it is for the first time in 60 years that judges’ assets declaration will become mandatory,” said a ministry official.
Law Minister M. Veerappa Moily refused to comment.
Despite the government's focus on transparency in public life, its fresh stand on “protection for the judiciary” has baffled top jurists.
“It is not merely sufficient to drop the clause that provided for a three-year imprisonment to the individual who tries to make judges’ wealth details public. It was a shameful provision and whosoever thought of it be sacked,” said veteran jurist Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer, a former Supreme Court judge.
“If judges’ assets are to be kept confidential, it is a wasteful exercise by the government, which lacks political will to introduce reforms in judiciary.”
Justice P B Sawant, another former SC judge, said: “The reasons being given for keeping judges’ wealth details secret are laughable. It is being said there would be unnecessary litigation against judges. Then why did the Supreme Court make it mandatory for others?”
Lawyer and former law minister Shanti Bhushan said the government and judiciary “was working in tandem to help judges escape the RTI”.