MPs’ panel likely to finalize draft Bill today

MPs’ panel likely to finalize draft Bill today

A parliamentary committee is expected to finalize a draft of the Judicial Standards and Accountability Bill on Thursday amid calls for bringing the higher judiciary under the ambit of a separate anti-corruption draft law, the Lokpal Bill.

The judicial accountability Bill is likely to propose the creation of a national judicial oversight committee, which will probe allegations against sitting judges of high courts and the Supreme Court.

The oversight committee will likely comprise a sitting and a retired Supreme Court judge and the chief justice of a high court, nominated by the Chief Justice of India, said a member of the Rajya Sabha standing committee on personnel, public grievances, law and justice, asking not to be identified as the committee’s proceedings are confidential.

The attorney-general of India and an eminent person nominated by the President are also likely to be on the oversight committee. If there are complaints against members of the oversight committee, the Chief Justice of India can remove them and propose a replacement to probe the charges, the standing committee member said.

The judicial accountability Bill is expected to replace the Judges Inquiry Act, 1968, which prescribes the procedure to impeach judges of the higher judiciary.

Calcutta high court judge Soumitra Sen became the only judge to be impeached by a house of Parliament under the Judges Inquiry Act and Article 124 of the Constitution last week. The efficacy of the impeachment process and the accountability of judges in general came under scrutiny with Sen’s impeachment. Sen is likely to be subjected to the Lok Sabha’s vote on his impeachment next week.

Currently, there is no formal mechanism by which a citizen can complain against a sitting judge of the Supreme Court or a high court. Typically, the Chief Justice of India and the chief justices of the 22 high courts have received complaints in the form of letters.

Social activist Anna Hazare, who has been on a hunger strike for nine days demanding that the government adopt his version of the Lokpal Bill, was earlier insisting that the higher judiciary be brought under the purview of the proposed anti-graft watchdog, the Lokpal.

But the government persuaded him and his aides to give up this demand as the judicial accountability Bill will address the need for a formal process to probe complaints against judges.

The Rajya Sabha standing committee will meet on Thursday for the second time and the Bill is likely to attain a final form before being tabled in Parliament at the end of the monsoon session, two weeks from now, said Abhishek Manu Singhvi, who chairs the standing committee.

“We have tried to fashion a strong judicial counterpart to the Lokpal Bill within reasonable limits to ensure that the elusive perfect Bill in the bush is not allowed to be the enemy of the good workable Bill in hand. At least, this will ensure that the issue of a largely unaccountable judiciary is addressed," Singhvi said. Singhvi, who took over as chairman of the standing committee three weeks ago, said he had a “remarkable" meeting with Hazare’s close aides on the Lokpal Bill in relation to accountability of judges.

But lawyer Prashant Bhushan, one of Hazare’s close aides, said the proposal to create a national judicial oversight committee is useless.

Bhushan said Hazare’s team had relaxed its demand to bring judges under the purview of the Lokpal on the condition that a strong independent body would be created to probe judges. “The problem with their body is it is neither independent nor powerful."