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Justice done?

Though apex court judges posted their wealth details on the institution’s web site, it’s not clear if citizens can demand information on their assets. Nagendar Sharma examines...How the 11 months proved decisive

india Updated: Nov 04, 2009 01:21 IST
Nagendar Sharma

Supreme Court judges have “voluntarily” declared their assets, ending a 12-year-old wait by the public and activists, but that may not be enough.

Although a welcome beginning has been made, some questions remain: It is not clear whether the citizens can seek information on judges’ wealth and how often the details will be updated. And more importantly, in some cases financial details about their properties have not been mentioned.

This question whether judges should fall under the purview of the Right to Information Act has engaged the three arms of government and the public ever since the legislation came into existence in 2005. However, judges were of the view that the principle of self-regulation applied to them.

The decision has been termed “voluntary,” and based on a 1997 resolution passed by Supreme Court judges.

“The judges should have updated the 12-year-old resolution to make mandatory providing annual wealth declarations,” said former Chief Justice of India (CJI) J. S. Verma, the architect of the original accountability move in 1997. “There should be clarity in the declarations. It should have financial details and value of the property declared by each judge,” said Justice P.B. Sawant, a former Supreme Court judge.

“The disclosure should be on an affidavit so that action could be taken against judges whose wealth declarations turn out to be false,” said senior lawyer Prashant Bhushan, considered instrumental behind the issue.

The demands follow lack of disclosures by many judges about exact details of their properties – dates of purchase, current market value estimates and details of companies’ shares they have invested in.

Here are some examples – Justice P Sathasivam owns a 1989 model motorcycle (priced at around Rs 20,000); Justice J.M. Panchal has declared three gold medals awarded to him during his law course and unpaid bills of a carpenter and a trader in Ahmedabad. Many judges have stated they don’t own a car.

The scepticism of activists fighting for judicial accountability is reinforced by the stiff resistance of the Supreme Court on the implementation of the Right to Information (RTI) Act in the higher judiciary.

The Chief Justice of India has repeatedly declared that this law does not cover his “high office”.

The top court refused to accept the Central Information Commission ruling and the Delhi High Court judgment this year, both of which stated that the CJI’s office is covered under the RTI.

It was the United Progressive Alliance government that was responsible for the shift in the judiciary’s stance through its move of trying to make a law that would have helped the judges to keep their wealth details secret.

On August 3, Union Law Minister M. Veerappa Moily tried to introduce a bill in the Rajya Sabha proposing to make the declaration of assets by the judges of the Supreme Court and High Courts mandatory, but these were to be kept confidential.

Moily misread the mood of Parliament, and a determined opposition forced him to withdraw the bill. The opposition objected to the provision that wealth details can be kept confidential.

A majority of Supreme Court judges were reportedly unhappy with the government move.

Then it was Justice D.V. Shylendra Kumar of the Karnataka High Court who slammed the CJI’s stance on the issue. “It is wrong to assume that a majority of judges in the country are opposed to declaration of assets,” he wrote in a newspaper article on August 18.

Then Justice K. Kannan of the Punjab & Haryana High Court became the first judge in the country to voluntarily declare his assets on August 22.

Facing defiance from junior colleagues, four days later the Supreme Court judges decided to declare their assets. But it took them two months to post details on the court’s web site.