The Judges’ Assets Bill – A window for reforms
By Kanan Dhru, 07 Aug 2009

As the India transitions towards a more accountable and transparent democracy, the society gets confronted with issues that sometimes raise fundamental questions.

One such issue is being raised with the Judges (Declaration of Assets and Liabilities) Bill (hereafter ‘the Bill’), being introduced as part of the ambitious reformist agenda of the current government. The Bill tries to further judicial accountability by making disclosure of the assets and liabilities of the judges mandatory.

In Indian society, role of the judiciary has been pivotal. Decisions of the Courts in India have always had a tremendous impact on the way the country is governed. Society, which sometimes gets disillusioned by the executive and the legislature, gets left with only the judiciary to look to for fairness in governance. However, with the growing instances of corruption in the judiciary across the country, it was necessary that some regulation get introduced to make the functioning of the judiciary more transparent. In a system where, traditionally, public scrutiny of the functioning of the judges has been very minimal (especially on the matters concerning disclosure of assets and liabilities), the Bill comes as a big leap forward.

But fearing that the Indian public might misuse the disclosure to mudsling against the judges, and that the judges may not be able to defend themselves like politicians, the Bill created an in-built system by which the disclosure will have to be made only to the respective Chief Justices, and not to the public at large. In fact, the Bill makes it a penal offence in case the disclosure of the assets of the judges is made to any citizen. In effect, the Bill exempts the judges of the High Courts and the Supreme Court from any real public scrutiny of their assets – a privilege even the President and Prime Minister do not enjoy. Expectedly, the Bill faced stiff opposition in the Parliament, and its introduction had to be deferred.

Clearly, judges should be put at par with the elected representatives, and any provision that exempts them from such parity in probing may go against the Right to Equality built in the Article 14 of the Constitution, as well as the Right to Information Act. Elsewhere in the world, many countries including the USA require public and annual declaration of assets as a norm by all federal judges including judges of the Supreme Court. Surely there is no reason to think that such a requirement would be any differently problematic in India to warrant any exemption?

While in spirit, the Bill does signifies a positive start towards a much needed process of reforms in the justice delivery mechanism of the country, and to that extent it should be welcomed, exemptions such as one in question dissipate the very objectives of transparency and equality that the Bill purportedly stands for. It remains to be seen if the Government takes steps to address the problems in the Bill, and reintroduce it in the earnest.

It is crucial that the momentum in judicial reforms be maintained. The Judicial Inquiries Bill, the reconsideration of procedure for appointment and removal of judges, as well as instituting an appraisal mechanism to evaluate their performances are all long due reforms within the judicial system, and let us hope that productive discussions around the Judges Assets Bill bring into light the need for these changes as well, to ensure adequate checks and balances within the Judicial system.

Finally, there is a hope that the issues that were so far hidden below the surface will be put on the reform agenda of the government. As far as the reforms in the legal arena are concerned, it is high time that we demand even stricter and more rigorous regulations for those who uphold the law itself.

Kanan Dhru is Managing Director of Research Foundation for Governance in India.