The debate over judicial accountability gathered pace last week when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said: "Corruption in judiciary is a challenge." On Monday, Speaker Somnath Chatterjee focused on the issue again saying that the Chief Justice of India (CJI)’s office should also come under the purview of the Right to Information Act (RTI) because the "Act was a mechanism for the people’s constitutional right to know".
The CJI, KG Balakrishnan, however, does not support either view. While he refused to join issue with the PM, he was clear on RTI — the CJI’s office was a constitutional post and, therefore, can’t come under the purview of the law.
The judicial system is still seen as the last resort for justice in a milieu where other institutions don’t work effectively. But this does not mean that it is above corruption. Therefore, scrutiny and transparency are vital if it is to remain credible.
But judges in India have repeatedly stalled any attempt to move towards being open to public scrutiny and vetoed processes like the declaration of wealth. But worldwide the trend is different. For example, judges in US make public details of their wealth, while information about judges in the UK can be obtained through the Freedom of Information Act there. Former CJI JS Verma had once rightly pointed out: "Transparency and accountability must attach to the functioning of everyone who wields public power. Judges are as much accountable in a democracy as anyone else."
In fact, in 2007 the present CJI himself vowed to curb corruption with an ‘iron fist’ and sought the help of legal fraternity by becoming ‘whistle-blowers’. But when it came to action, no one took the first step. A 2005 study on judicial corruption done by the Transparency International pegged the total value of corruption in judiciary at Rs 2,630 crore per year.
The CJI’s office is a constitutional post and there is no doubt that there should be some amount of sanctity attached to it. But, as Mr Chatterjee, correctly asserted, "In a democracy people occupy the central position… there is scope for speculation which may affect the credibility of the institution." And, as citizens, we would feel far more reassured if we knew that we are reposing our faith in an institution worthy of our trust.