The recent unfiltered social media attacks on Judges of the Supreme Court for oral observations made during a hearing last week, have once again sparked the debate for the need to regulate public discourse on judicial proceedings. While a well-reasoned critique of a judgment on legal grounds may be encouraged in a democracy, unsavory personal remarks on a Judge, or their personal lives are certainly unwarranted.
The oral remarks made by a Bench comprising of Justice Surya Kant and Justice Pardiwala during the hearing of a writ petition filed by Nupur Sharma have unfortunately led to innumerable personal vicious attacks on the Judges. Observations made, or questions raised by Judges in Court, are often to test the propositions raised by the Counsel, or to satisfy themselves of the requirements of the law. An open discourse inside the Courtroom is essential to examine the merits of each case. Legal professionals are conscientiously aware of the distinction between oral remarks made during a hearing vis-à-vis operative directions recorded in an Order / Judgment. Such nuances are recognized by legally trained minds, but may not be so when such observations are taken out of context by those unaware of the legal aspect of the matter. This dividing line, however, gets blurred when comments made by Judges in Court become the cause of personal onslaughts upon them by anonymous trolls conveniently taking refuge behind a screen.
The growing trend of ambushing Judges with personal remarks is deplorable, more so when Judges are unable to defend themselves in an open forum. Recently, when Justice Surya Kant was subjected to a brutal social media attack for his remarks, he chose not to respond with hostility, but dealt with the situation graciously – the hallmark of a traditional upright judge. In his recent speech, Justice Pardiwala rightly highlighted the need for regulating social media. His discourse was also met with disproportionate criticism. Such widespread vilification of Judges is not only unmerited, but also paints an inaccurate picture. Maintaining their oath of allegiance to the Constitution of India, and sustaining the dignity of the office they hold, Judges have to turn a deaf ear to this smear campaign.
While the goal of live-streaming is increased transparency and accountability, it is, no doubt, a double-edged sword. When live streams or recordings of court proceedings do the rounds of social media, it often leads to non-contextual disparagement of Judges, especially in matters creating political or social ripples.
A cherished facet of the legal profession is the relationship between the Bench and the Bar. Often in Court, Judges make observations or remarks in a lighter vein to diffuse the tense environment. Over time, these moments ripen into stories which pass on to future generations in the profession. With the onset of live-tweeting of these instances, comments are taken out of context, and Judges are personally maligned. The tenor of words and body language adopted in Court may not be accurately reflected in live-tweets, or other print reports, or may be taken out of context by the reader. These comments are made in the course of the hearing, only to arrive at accurate conclusions, factually and legally. Only those observations recorded in an Order of the Court are to be taken as the "word" of the Court.
We must also not lose sight of the fact that Court proceedings are conducted to uphold the rule of law. When clippings of Court hearings are circulated in the form of entertainment videos, it undermines their solemnity. Additionally, when a barrage of social media attacks is made on Judges, it may cause them to deliver "popular" judgments, than those based on legal principles. Before we open Pandora's box of live-streaming of Court proceedings, we must ask ourselves if, we, as a society, comprise of a mature enough audience to receive such information.
The blurred lines between coherent criticism and ill-informed outbursts pose a threat to the public perspective of a strong pillar of our democracy. These off-the-cuff remarks certainly cannot shake the foundation and independence of the judiciary, but they do shape the views of other persons, who may not have the benefit of understanding the intricacies of the law. Being members of the Bar, it is our solemn duty to shed light upon such ignorance and put an end to such mud-slinging.
The author is a Senior Advocate, Supreme Court of India
Views are personal.