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Master Of Roster – Constitutional Limitation And Way Forward

In an unprecedented move, four sitting judges of the Supreme Court of India held a press conference on Friday (January 12, 2018), asserting that the administration of the apex court is “not in order” and that ‘things less than desirable’ have been happening over the past few months.

The said judges, who are all members of the Supreme Court collegium, disclosed that they had written a letter to the Chief Justice of India airing their grievances. One of the grievances raised pertained to the functioning of the Chief Justice as the master of roster.

While acknowledging that the CJI is the master of roster, it was their grievance that though there are well-settled conventions for guidance for the discharge of the said function, of late, such conventions have not been strictly adhered to.

According to the said judges, “There have been instances where cases having far-reaching consequences for the nation and the institution had been assigned by the Chief Justice of this Court selectively to the benches ‘of preference’ without any rational basis for such assignment.” The full text of the letter is now in public domain.

It is debated in public and responsible circles that in the light of the grievance raised by the four senior-most judges of the apex court, what the remedy to rectify the wrong, which can disturb our entire scheme of constitutional governance, could be.

Undoubtedly, the chief justices enjoy a special status and they alone can assign work to a judge sitting alone and to the judges sitting in division bench or full bench. They have the jurisdiction to decide which case will be heard by which bench. If the judges were free to choose their jurisdiction or any choice was given to them to do whatever case they may like to hear and decide, the machinery of the court would collapse and the judicial work of the court would cease by generation of internal strife on account of hankering for a particular jurisdiction or a particular case. The apex court has held that a judge or a bench of judges can assume jurisdiction in a case pending in the court, only if the case is allotted to him or them by the chief justice. Strict adherence of this procedure is essential for maintaining judicial discipline and proper functioning of the court. No departure from this procedure is permissible.

Source of Power of CJI to act as the master of Roster

Article 145(1) of the Constitution provides that subject to the provisions of any law made by Parliament, the Supreme Court may from time to time, with the approval of the President, make rules for regulating generally the practice and procedure of the court. Article 246 read with Entry 77of the Union List empowers the Parliament to make law in respect of the Constitution, organisation, jurisdiction and powers of the Supreme Court. Article 77 provides that the executive power of the Union shall extend to the matters with respect to which Parliament has power to make laws.

The Parliament has not made any law so far with regard to formation of benches or laying down the principles for distribution of judicial business or allocation of cases amongst the judges. The Supreme Court, in exercise of its powers under Article 145, has been framing rules for regulating the practice and procedure of the court. Presently, the Supreme Court Rules, 2013, is governing the field. Order VI of these Rules has made certain provisions relating to “Constitution of Division Courts and Powers of Single Judges”. But the Rules are neither exhaustive in relation to roster nor provide any guidelines for forming of rosters.

The Supreme Court of India consists of Chief Justice of India and its other puisne judges. It is well settled that in discharge of judicial functions, the CJI and other judges exercise the same powers. The CJI is always the senior-most judge of the court. It has, therefore, been said that on the judicial side, the CJI is only first among equals.[1] But following the judgment of the three-judge bench in Prakash Chand,[2] it has further been held that as far as the roster is concerned, which is an administrative function, the Chief Justice is the ‘master of the roster’ and he alone has the prerogative to constitute the benches of the court and allocate cases to the benches so constituted. It has been clarified by the Constitution Bench that this has also been the convention of the Supreme Court and as such is the law. It has been clarified that the convention is followed because of judicial discipline and decorum. It has been emphatically clarified that “Once the Chief Justice is stated to be the Master of the Roster, he alone has the prerogative to constitute Benches”.

Exercise of Power to act as the Master of Roster

On a plain reading of the law declared by the apex court in relation to the concept of “master of roster”, it looks as if he has absolute discretion in the matter of distribution of judicial work among the judges of his court. Without going into the controversy as to the source of this power, that is, whether it is derived from certain conventions or can be said to be inherent in the office of the chief justices or are based on statutory provisions, one thing is certain that such power can be exercised only subject to the constitutional limitations, particularly, Article 14 of the Constitution.

It is well settled that “Article 14 strikes at arbitrariness in State action and ensures fairness and equality of treatment. The principle of reasonableness, which legally as well as philosophically, is an essential element of equality or non-arbitrariness pervades Article 14 like a brooding omnipresence”.[3]This principle equally applies to all the constitutional authorities.

In the case of Maru Ram v Union of India [(1981) 1 SCC 107], the Constitution Bench has held that where a power is vested in a very high authority, it must be presumed that the said authority would act properly and carefully after an objective consideration of all the aspects of the matter, and further, the higher the power, the more cautious would be its exercise.

Today, the country is faced with a situation when even the four senior-most judges of the apex court have questioned the administrative functioning of the CJI and it appears that they could not locate any constitutional remedy except to approach the people through the medium of press.

 It is suggested that before any further damage is caused to the great constitutional institution, the Supreme Court, pursuant to its powers under Article 145(1) of the Constitution, clearly lay down the guidelines for exercising the powers of formation of Benches and allocation of cases keeping in view the conventions of the Court in this regard. In the fast changing situations, it may also be found advisable to confer the functions of “master of roster” on a committee comprised of CJI and two senior-most judges like the formation of collegium.

[1]Campaign for Judicial Accountability and Reforms v Union of India, (2018) 1 SCC 196 para 6

[2]State of Rajasthan v Prakash Chand, (1998) 1 SCC 1

[3]Article 14 was explored and brought to light in Royappa case, (1975) 1 SCC 485, and it was reaffirmed and elaborated by the Supreme Court in Maneka Gandhi v Union of India, (1980) 4 SCC 95, pp. 283-84, para 7

Author Is A Former Acting. Chief Justice of High Court of Karnataka

[The opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of LiveLaw and LiveLaw does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same]

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  • VSN says:

    Selective allocation of cases without any specific procedure and discriminating among the judges is arbitrary exercise of judicial power which has dangerous consequences.It opens doors to high level corruption.

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