New Delhi: Judicial reforms were the flavour of the year as the government focused its efforts on bringing a bill on judicial accountability and kept up its plans to change the present system of appointment of judges where the executive has little say. In March, the Lok Sabha passed an ambitious bill to lay judicial standards but despite two sessions of Parliament the bill could not be brought in the Rajya Sabha.
Besides concentrating its energies on the bill on judicial standards and accountability this year, the government also reiterated its plans to change the present mechanism of appointment of senior judges by a collegium of judges. The year also saw a change of guard in the Law Ministry with Ashwani Kumar taking over as the new minister from Salman Khurshid, who was made the external affairs minister. Kumar is the third law minister in the UPA II government, with the first M Veerappa Moily now heading the Petroleum Ministry.
The Judicial Standards and Accountability Bill was passed in the Lok Sabha during the Budget session amid din over Telangana issue. Following stiff opposition by eminent jurists and the higher judiciary, government had agreed to have a re-look at a controversial clause which debars judges from making verbal comments against any constitutional authority in open courts. But the government decided to retain the clause.
A meeting of the Union Cabinet, chaired by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in December approved amendments to the bill. While deciding to retain the controversial clause, it has made some changes in it to ensure it "stands the test of Article 14 which deals with equality before law". The earlier clause prohibited judges from making "unwarranted comments against conduct of any constitutional or statutory authority or statutory bodies or statutory institutions or any chairperson or member or officer thereof, or on the matters which are pending or likely to arise for judicial determination".
The amended clause debars judges from making unwarranted comments against conduct of any "constitutional body and other persons". The measure allows citizens to complain against corrupt judges but has been facing criticism for the provision which jurists say would "virtually gag" the judges in open courts. The bill, with fresh amendments, is now likely to come up during the Budget session next year.
In his first official press conference last month, Kumar said the government is working on a proposal to change the present mechanism of appointment of judges by a collegium of judges. He said there was a "large political consensus" to put in place the alternative mechanism.
Under the present collegium system, the executive has no say in appointments of judges of the Supreme Court and the high courts as the recommendations of the collegium are final and binding on the government. The last effort to replace the collegium system in 2003 could not succeed. The then NDA government introduced a Constitution Amendment Bill, but the Lok Sabha was dissolved when the bill was before a Standing Committee.