CJI is the Master of Roster; “Chief Justice” cannot be read as “Collegium” for allocation of matters: Supreme Court

“It is difficult to accept the prayer of the petitioner that the expression ‘Chief Justice’ appearing in the Supreme Court Rules, 2013 be read as ‘Collegium’ of first five senior most Judges for the purpose of allocating the matters. At the same time, we feel that debate generated as a result has served its purpose.”

Supreme Court: While deciding the writ petition that sought devising of a more transparent system in allocation of cases to Benches in the Apex Court, the Bench comprising of A.K. Sikri and Ashok Bhushan, JJ. relied heavily on a 3-Judge Bench decision in Asok Pande v. Supreme Court of India, (2018) 5 SCC 341, to hold that “ ‘Chief Justice in his individual capacity is the Master of Roster and it cannot read as Collegium of first three or five Judges. Thus, it is his prerogative to constitute the Benches and allocate the subjects which would be dealt with by the respective Benches“. The petitioner, Shanti Bhushan, Senior Advocate was represented by Senior Counsel Dushyant Dave while K.K. Venugopal, Attorney General of India led the response.

The writ petition was filed seeking the Court to clarify the administrative authority of Chief Justice of India as the Master of Roster and for laying down the procedure and principles to be followed in preparing the Roster for allocation of cases. At the outset, the petition acknowledged the legal principle that CJI is the Master of Roster and has the authority to allocate the cases to different Benches/Judges of the Supreme Court. However, it was contended that this power is not to be used to assert any superior authority by the Chief Justice and the power is to be exercised in a manner that is fair, just and transparent. It was apprehended that keeping in view the predisposition of particular Judges, CJI may assign cases to those Judges to achieve a predetermined outcome. According to the petitioner, there was a need for devising a more rational and transparent system of listing and re-allocation of the matters to avoid any such possibilities. As per the petitioner, the matters need to be listed by strictly following the provisions of the Supreme Court Rules, 2013 which empower the Chief Justice to allocate certain cases exercising his discretionary powers. The petitioner submitted that in order to ensure that such a discretion is exercised in a fair manner, the expression ‘Chief  Justice’ should be interpreted to mean ‘Collegium’ of first 5 Judges of the Supreme Court, as held by this Court in Supreme Court Advocates-On-Record Association v. Union of India, (1993) 4 SCC 441.

The Supreme Court after a meticulous consideration of all the submissions made on behalf of the petitioner and perusal of various rules and the law including binding precedents, held that “the two most obvious functions of the ‘Chief Justice’ are to exercise judicial power as a Judge of the Court on equal footing as others, being ‘among equals’ and to assume responsibility of the administration of the Court”. The observations and opinions of the Hon’ble Judges that gave a unanimous decision, while delivering separate opinions, are summarized hereinafter:

  • Chief Justice of India is the Master of Roster for allocation of cases to Benches of the Supreme Court.
  • The term “Chief Justice” appearing in Supreme Court Rules, 2013 cannot be read as “Collegium” of 5 senior most Judges for the purpose of allocation of matters.
  • The matters need to be listed and assigned to the Benches in accordance with the Supreme Court Rules, 2013 and the Handbook of Practice and Procedure.
  • There is no harm in adopting healthy practices in foreign Judicial systems. “Reforms in the administration of Justice is a continuing process. We all learn from experiences and strive to do better”.
  • Rules framed under Article 145 of the Constitution specifically empower the Chief Justice to nominate Benches for hearing cases or appeal. Non-containing of any specific provision in the Constitution empowering the Chief Justice to frame the roster to allocate the cases is inconsequential since the entire subject was to be covered by rules made under Article 145.

The Court found fortification of its views mentioned hereinabove in the recent Constitution Bench Judgment in Campaign for Judicial Accountability and Reforms v. Supreme Court of India,(2018) 1 SCC 196and the 3 Judge-Bench decision in Asok Pande v. Supreme Court of India, (2018) 5 SCC 341. The petition was accordingly disposed of with the above-mentioned observations.[Shanti Bhushan v. Supreme Court of India, (2018) 8 SCC 396, decided on 06-07-2018]

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