Context: The article discusses a recent Supreme Court order that expands the powers of the Chief Justice of India (CJI) in the judicial domain. It specifically refers to a case called Ritu Chhabria v. Union of India, in which a Division Bench of the Supreme Court made a significant ruling regarding the right to default bail for undertrials. It explains that in the case, the court upheld the right of an undertrial to be released on default bail if the investigation exceeds the stipulated time limit and remains incomplete. It criticized the practice of investigative agencies charging an accused despite the investigation not being concluded. It highlights the clarification by the court that the right to seek default bail is not extinguished by the mere filing of a preliminary charge-sheet. Instead, an accused’s entitlement to default bail would only cease upon the completion of the investigation within the statutory time limit. By analyzing the court’s observations, the article has brought out the importance of timely and thorough investigations to safeguard the rights of undertrials.
Background From Master of the Roster to Master of all Judges
The Office of the CJI:
- Qualifications: The CJI must be a citizen of India and meet one of the following criteria:
- Have been a judge of a High Court for at least five years or of two or more High Courts in succession.
- Have been an advocate of a High Court for at least ten years or of two or more High Courts in succession.
- Be a distinguished jurist, as determined by the President.
- The President appoints the CJI and other judges of the Supreme Court under Article 124(2) of the Constitution.
- The outgoing CJI recommends his/her successor, which is then forwarded by the Union Law Minister to the Prime Minister.
- The Prime Minister advises the President on the appointment.
- Seniority: According to the Second Judges Case (1993) ruling, the senior-most judge of the Supreme Court should be appointed as the CJI.
- Collegium System:
- The appointment and transfer of judges in the Supreme Court are determined by the collegium system.
- The SC collegium, headed by the CJI, consists of the four other senior-most judges of the court.
- This system evolved through judgments of the Supreme Court (Judges Cases).
- Administrative Powers (Master of Roster):
- In addition to the adjudicatory role, the CJI serves as the administrative head of the Supreme Court.
- The CJI has the authority to allocate cases to specific benches and determine the number of judges who will hear a particular case.
- These administrative powers allow the CJI to influence the outcome of cases.
- The CJI can only be removed by an order of the President after an address by Parliament.
- The removal requires a special majority, which means a majority of the total membership of each House of Parliament and a majority of not less than two-thirds of the members present and voting.
- The grounds for removal include proved misbehavior or incapacity (Article 124(4)).
- RTI Act:
- In 2019, the Supreme Court ruled that the office of the CJI comes under the purview of the Right to Information (RTI) Act, 2005.
- This means that the CJI’s office is subject to the transparency and accountability provisions of the RTI Act.
Decoding the Editorial
The article is discussing a surprising and unusual decision made by the Court of the Chief Justice of India (CJI) regarding the recall application filed by the Union of India against the judgment in the Ritu Chhabria case.
Understanding the recent SC Order:
- Typically, when a judgment is issued by a bench, the usual recourse available for a party dissatisfied with the decision is to file a review petition, which is generally decided by the same bench.
- However, in this case, the Court of the CJI entertained the recall application filed by the Union of India, even though it was an entirely different bench from the one that issued the judgment.
- This is an extraordinary step because there was no provision for a recall application to be filed against a judgment before a different bench.
- By entertaining the recall application and passing an interim order, the Court of the CJI effectively suspended the precedential value of the Division Bench’s decision in the Ritu Chhabria case for a temporary period.
- It directed the lower courts to decide bail applications without relying on the Ritu Chhabria judgment.
- This action can be seen as indirectly staying the decision of the Division Bench, despite the Court of the CJI not being directly connected to the original verdict.
- This move by the Court of the CJI establishes a mechanism that lacks legislative or constitutional backing. It compares it to “bench fishing” or “forum shopping,” which refers to the practice of deliberately selecting a particular court or judge to hear a case with the expectation of receiving a favorable outcome.
- In this context, it implies that the Court of the CJI entertained an intra-court appeal against a judgment passed by a different bench, creating a procedure that deviates from established legal norms.
Roles and Powers of the CJI:
The article discusses the role and powers of the Chief Justice of India (CJI) within the constitutional framework of the country’s judiciary.
- It explains that while all judges of the Supreme Court are equal in terms of their judicial powers, the CJI holds special administrative powers.
- The CJI has the authority to constitute benches, assign matters to judges, and refer cases for reconsideration by a larger bench.
- This position of the CJI as the ‘Master of the Roster’ establishes the CJI as the ‘first amongst equals’ among the companion judges.
- However, within a bench, including the CJI, each judge has an equal vote or power.
- The article highlights instances where the CJI has authored minority opinions, demonstrating that the CJI’s opinion does not carry greater weight in terms of judicial decisions.
- It also compares the Indian system to other Commonwealth countries like the UK, Australia, and Canada, where a similar system is in place.
Debated “Master of the Roaster”
- The legitimacy of the power of the CJI as the Master of the Roster has been a subject of debate in India.
- While it has been reaffirmed for administrative decisions to ensure the smooth functioning of the court, it is argued that the recent order by the CJI goes beyond the powers envisioned under the Master of the Roster system.
- It is suggested that the order undermines the established procedures and rules of the Constitution and the Supreme Court.
- The recent court order is of concern as such an order sets a precedent where the government, if dissatisfied with a bench’s decision, could simply approach the CJI to nullify the legal significance of the decision instead of going through the established process of review before the same bench.
- This raises concerns about the potential misuse of power and the impact it may have on the independence and integrity of the judiciary.
Potential Abuse of Power:
- The article expresses concern regarding the potential abuse of powers vested in the Chief Justice of India (CJI) as the ‘Master of the Roster.’
- It mentions a previous instance where four senior judges of the Supreme Court raised concerns about irregularities in case administration and assignment.
- While acknowledging the administrative usefulness of the Master of the Roster system, it is argued that the powers given to the CJI are extensive and practically limitless.
- It is impractical to impose any limits on these powers, as they are meant to ensure the smooth functioning of the court.
- However, there is a need for the CJI to refrain from expanding these powers and advocates for a completely computerised system for constituting benches and allocating cases, removing them from the discretion of the CJI.
- The article points out that the CJI’s powers as the Master of the Roster should be limited to administrative decision-making.