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How To Lower The Bar

The state high courts are rife with cases of abuse of the law and corruption

How To Lower The Bar
How To Lower The Bar

The rumour decibels in the corridors of our high courts have steadily gone up in the past few years. The issue, of course, is the moral and monetary corruption of those that sit in judgement in these highest courts. Proof may be a bit elusive but reputations have hit rock bottom. Indeed, there is no dearth of anecdotal tales in the bar councils on how some judges routinely dole out favours.

The latest controversy in this long list involves the chief justice of the Allahabad HC, Justice F.I. Rebello. A complaint has now been sent to the Chief Justice of India (CJI), Justice S.H. Kapadia, on September 23. It alleges that Rebello passed administrative orders that favoured UP chief minister Mayawati in a case related to her role in the Taj corridor case. Two years ago, a writ petition had been filed in the HC challenging the state governor’s refusal to grant sanction to prosecute Mayawati. Justices Pradeep Kant and Shabihul Husnain had been hearing the case for almost two years and it had reached a critical stage. The spoiler, it seems, came after a meeting between Mayawati and the chief justice on June 26 this year.

Justice Soumitra Sen
Judge, Calcutta HC
Allegation: Faces impeachment after the Rajya Sabha recommended that he be removed from office. Has been accused 
of misappropriating PSU sale proceeds to the tune of Rs 24 lakh.
  Justice Nirmal Yadav
Judge, Uttarakhand High Court
Allegation: Accused in the “Rs 15 lakh cash-at-door scam” where the money was delivered to another judge’s residence in 2008. The money, it was alleged by the bribe givers, was for Nirmal Yadav.

Chief Justice F.I. Rebello
Allahabad High Court
Allegation: Passed order favouring Mayawati in the Taj Corridor case days after he met her, taking control of the case away from the judges who had issued notice against the CM. 
  Justice Mehtab Singh Gill
Judge, Punjab and Haryana HC
Allegation: Figures in the tapes released by the Punjab Vigilance Bureau in June 2009 that allegedly has touts talking about fixing judgements by paying off judges. Refers to Gill in their conversations.

Within nine days of the meeting, the complaint alleges, Justice Rebello passed an administrative order classifying public interest litigations (PILs) into two categories—criminal and civil. He also created a new bench to hear all “criminal PILs”. However, when Justices Kant and Husnain continued to hear the CM’s case, the chief justice passed a fresh clarification that all PILs seeking a prosecution sanction would also be treated as a “criminal PIL” and, therefore, would now be placed under a new bench. While it is the “prerogative of the chief justice to make the roster and change the roster and even divest benches of part-heard cases, it is most unusual for a chief justice to issue such administrative orders which are so specific so as to affect only one case,” notes the complaint to the CJI by the Campaign for Judicial Accountability and Judicial Reforms.

In a separate case, a shocking 11 judges of the Allahabad HC have also been charged in the Rs 33 crore PF scam. The charge is that provident fund money of Class IV staff was siphoned off from the Ghaziabad district court treasury.

But it isn’t the Allahabad HC alone that’s gone astray. Take the Karnataka HC, an institution witness to unprecedented chaos for two long years when it was presided over by Justice P.D. Dinakaran. Finally, in July this year, he was transferred out to the Sikkim High Court. Facing serious accusations of land-grabbing and with an impeachment motion being moved against him in Parliament, he was forced to keep away from judicial duties as long as he was in Karnataka.

A most familiar accusation one hears in the court hallways in Bangalore is of corrupt judges trading judicial favours for prime real estate in and around the city. One particular judge is said to be the owner of not one but a number of plots in a plush locality. Advocates also draw attention to an intriguing incident from two months ago when an unsigned copy of a judgement reached a newsroom a day before it was to be passed. An inquiry was ordered into the leak, but nobody has been held or suspended so far for this violation of judicial sanctity.

Coming to the north, the Punjab and Haryana HC has been making headlines of a dubious nature with some regularity. From vigilance probes revealing the “rates” allegedly being charged by judges to the most infamous Justice Nirmal Yadav cash-at-door case, they have all contributed to putting this high court right up there on the corruption index.

Land And Grab: Dinakaran’s controversial plot of land in Chennai. (Photograph by Nilotpal Baruah)

Last week, the CJI finally gave the CBI the go-ahead to initiate prosecution proceedings against Justice Yadav, eight months after the very same permission was denied by the previous chief justice of India. The case happened in August 2008 when a packet containing Rs 15 lakh was delivered to the residence of Justice Nirmaljeet Kaur, who immediately informed the police. When additional advocate general of Haryana, Sanjeev Bansal, who had sent the money, was arrested and questioned, he told the police that the bribe money had actually been meant for Justice Nirmal Yadav.

At about the same time in ’08, the Punjab Vigilance Bureau stumbled on phone conversations between lawyers and touts which brought out how the higher judiciary is being manipulated and how certain cases are put before friendly judges for a consideration. The names of two HC judges—Justices H.S. Bhalla and Mehtab Singh Gill—figured in the reports.

Justice Soumitra Sen of the Calcutta High Court has been under a cloud since the ’90s. Facing impeachment now on charges of corruption, he recently filed his reply before the Rajya Sabha probe panel denying all the charges. The judge was found guilty of siphoning off public funds during his days as a lawyer. In 1993, he was appointed as a court receiver in a dispute between the Steel Authority of India Ltd and the Shipping Corporation of India and asked to safe-keep a deposit of Rs 24 lakh—which he used for personal purposes. He has since returned the money but that does not absolve him. When contacted, Justice Sen told Outlook, “I will prove my innocence if necessary before Parliament.”

In the portals of the Bombay HC, the whispers get louder by the day. A recent example was of a girl child who was refused readmission by a school as the mother was touted as a ‘trouble-maker’. She petitioned the court, and the judgement went against her but then there were insinuations that the judge had a relative on the school board. So why didn’t he recuse himself? The latest buzz in Mumbai, though, is about a retired HC judge who bought a high-end Mercedes just weeks into his retirement. And what to make of the CJI-ordered transfer of Bombay HC’s Justice R.S. Mohite (to the Patna HC) on the grounds of “public interest”? The latter subsequently resigned citing an inability to make the move.

The judges’ conduct has come in for flak from other quarters too. Two petitioners approached the Bombay HC three years ago asking how a 12-floor, sea-facing, residential tower in upmarket Walkeshwar—set to house judges of the HC—got requisite permissions though the plan was in violation of Coastal Regulation Zone rules. The petitioners alleged that some Rs 145 crore of World Bank funds was spent on the project.

So how to stem the rot? Retired Bombay HC Justice Hosbet Suresh says there is a need for “an effective mechanism to root out all corruption in the judiciary” adding that “it is time for an appropriate law on the issue of judicial corruption”. When instances of judicial misconduct come to light, it is absolutely necessary for the Bar to take the lead and speak up, he says, because appointing a judicial ombudsman or commission may not be effective enough.

By Sugata Srinivasaraju in Bangalore, Smruti Koppikar in Mumbai, Chander Suta Dogra in Chandigarh, Saikat Datta and Chandrani Banerjee in Delhi

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