‘We, as a Collegium, failed to appoint Women Judges to SC’: CJI Bobde

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CJI S A Bobde, who demitted office on Friday after a 17-month tenure, said in an exclusive interview with the news agency on Friday that freedom of speech was the most abused right at present. He didn’t elaborate. He also said that like any other judicial instrument, public interest litigation was open to misuse.

CJI Bobde was frank enough to admit there was not much progress on having more women Judges in the Supreme Court during his tenure. He underlined the need for a better gender balance but stopped short of calling for incentives in the appointment process for the same.

He saw online hearing of cases as a positive that improved access to the courts for everybody. “I think the advantages far outweigh the drawbacks. A litigant from any part of the country can be heard through an online proceeding…,” he said. 

Here’s the full interview-

Q. What changes have you brought to the judiciary in your tenure?
A. The introduction of the artificial intelligence programme SUPACE (SC Portal for Assistance in Court’s Efficiency), shifting proceedings to virtual courts, & the introduction of SUVAS (SC Vidhik Anuvaad Software) app that can be used for translation of Supreme Court judgments into nine vernacular languages. I also laid a lot of emphasis on minimizing the use of paper in order to make the court’s functioning more environmentally conscious.

Q. You recently observed that a woman should ascend to the post of CJI. What was the thought behind that?
A. We believe it’s time that not only more woman judges are appointed, but also for a woman CJI. We have also held collegium meetings in which names of women were considered as possible candidates for the SC, but those didn’t result in any appointment. We failed as a collegium on this aspect.

Q. When taking over as CJI, you had said your priority would be to reduce pendency. Do you think you have been successful?
A. The listing & rate of disposal of cases dropped so low due to the Covid pandemic last year that it was not possible to do that. We had asked the bar for consent for physical hearings & only a few members consented to it.

Q. Do you think collegium’s decisions on judges’ appointment should be detailed ones & not mere recommendations?
A. I don’t think so. As a lot of opinions about a candidate would otherwise find their way into the decision & might unnecessarily mar his/her reputation, as has happened in some cases in the past.

Q. Don’t you think collegium should divulge details about transfer of judges?
A. No, I don’t think so.

Q. Please elaborate on steps taken by you to fill up vacancies in the high courts in your tenure.
A. In my tenure 111 judges were appointed to various HCs. Also, we have recently passed two very important judgments that address the way the vacancy in the HCs can be filled in an effective & expeditious manner. We issued guidelines for the invocation of Article 224A for appointment of retired (HC) judges to the high courts, in the case Lok Prahari versus Union of India, to reduce the pendency of cases.

Q. What’s your say on criticism of judges & judgments on social media?
A. Social media should have the same standards as the print media. They can’t be making derogatory remarks or statements aimed at maligning the reputation of judges. One change I would like to see is that off the cuff answers, exploratory remarks made by judges about the case should not be reported as views of the judge.

Q. You once remarked that the Ayodhya verdict was historic. Do you think it was the biggest case handled by the bench, including you?
A. Possibly. It was the first time that the Constitution bench sat for five straight days in a week to hear the matter. The hearing lasted 40 days & more than a few thousand documents were part of the record. These documents had to be translated into English from Urdu, Persian & Sanskrit.

Q. You once said the Supreme Court would have a five-judge permanent bench to deal with the important issues like Sabarimala. Have any efforts been made in that direction?
A. The Sabarimala case itself could not be heard due to the pandemic. However, there have been five-judge benches to hear other important matters such as the recently constituted constitutional bench that heard the Maratha reservation case.

Q. You introduced the concept of hearing through video conferencing during the pandemic. You think it’s going to be a permanent feature in future.
A. Virtual hearings have some drawbacks like connectivity or feedback or sound which sometimes makes the hearing difficult. The hearing is then disrupted. But there is no reason why these defects can’t be rectified over a period of time. I think the advantages far outweigh the drawbacks… I think & hope it’s likely to stay. 

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