From Master of the Roster to Master of all Judges?

Source- The post is based on the article “From Master of the Roster to Master of all Judges?” published in “The Hindu” on 30th May 2023.

Syllabus: GS2- Functioning of judiciary

Relevance– Issues related to constitutional position of judges of SC.

News- Recently, a Division Bench of the Supreme Court, in Ritu Chhabria v. Union of India gave its decision on bail related matters.

What was the decision of the Division Bench of the Supreme Court, in Ritu Chhabria v. Union of India case?

It affirmed an undertrial’s right to be released on default bail in the case of incomplete investigation and proceeding beyond the statutory time limit.

It criticised the practice of investigative agencies charge-sheeting an accused despite the unfinished investigation. It held that the right to be released on bail will not end despite the filing of a preliminary charge-sheet.

It concluded that an accused’s right to seek default bail would be terminated only upon completion of the investigation within the statutory time limit.

What was the response of the court of CJI to recall application by the Union against Ritu Chhabria judgement?

The Court of the Chief Justice of India (CJI) entertained a recall application moved by the Union of India against this judgement.

It passed an interim order directing courts to decide bail applications without relying on the decision laid down in Ritu Chhabria for a short period of time.

The Court of the CJI indirectly stayed the decision despite not having any connection with the verdict.

What are the issues related to the interim order passed by court of CJI in the recall application filed by the Union government?

Ordinarily, the only recourse available to the Union of India was the filing of a review petition. It is usually decided by the same Bench. There was no scope of the review petition being entertained by the Court of the CJI.

A recall application cannot be filed against a judgement before a different Bench. It is equivalent to bench fishing or forum shopping.

The Court of the CJI has effectively instituted a mechanism by entertaining an intra-court appeal. The mechanism has not any legislative or constitutional backing.

The order has the effect of enlarging the powers of the CJI on the judicial side. It can create an unprecedented intra-court appellate mechanism within the Supreme Court.

What is the position of the CJI in relation to other judges of SC?

Within the constitutional scheme of things, all judges of the Supreme Court are equal in terms of their judicial powers. However, the CJI enjoys special administrative powers such as constituting Benches. He assigned matters and references for reconsideration of a larger Bench.

The CJI is known as the Master of the Rooster. He is regarded as ‘first amongst equals’ in relation to companion judges.

In any given Bench including the CJI, the vote or power given to the CJI is the same as that of his companion judges.

History is replete with examples of the CJI authoring a minority opinion of the Court.

Most Commonwealth countries such as the U.K., Australia and Canada have this system in place.

The U.S. has a system where all the judges collectively exercise power and render decisions.

What are the issues related to the master of the roster?

The legitimacy of the power of Master of the Roster has been hotly debated. There are instances of abuse that are a cause for concern.

Just five years ago, four senior judges of the Supreme Court alleged serious irregularities in the administration and assigning of cases for hearing to Benches of the Court.

The powers vested in the CJI by his virtue of being the Master of the Roster are unending. It is impractical to lay any limits on these powers, meant for the smooth administrative functioning of the Court.

It is imperative that the CJI himself refrains from expanding his powers as Master of the Roster. The practice of constituting Benches and allocating cases should be completely computerised and left out of the hands of the CJI.

The CJI’s powers as the Master of the Roster are meant only for administrative decision-making.

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