Master of Roster – Issues in News

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Meaning

  • Roster is defined as a system to allocate different tasks to all the members in order to achieve higher efficiency.
  • ‘Master of Roster’ refers to the privilege of the Chief Justice to constitute Benches to hear cases.
  • Be it the Chief Justice of India or Chief Justice of any high court it is he or she who heads the administrative side. This includes allocation of matters before a judge as well.
    • So, no Judge can take up the matter on this own, unless allocated by the Chief Justice of India.

Rulebook

  • According to the Supreme Court Rules, 2017. Chapter V: Powers, Duties and Functions of the Registrar, Rule 29, expressly states that the Registrar shall prepare roster under the directions of the Chief Justice of India, and all such powers, duties and functions of the registrar are subjected to any further special or general orders of the Chief Justice of India.
  • In the judgment of State of Rajasthan v. Prakash Chand, it clearly defines that regarding the matters of the High Court, the Chief Justice is the master of the roster
  • This privilege was again emphasized three times from 2017 to 2018 in the judgments of constitutional benches, that “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.”

Procedure of allocation of cases

  • There is no written procedure in the top court that is followed to allocate cases.
  • When a case is filed, its details and subject matter are scrutinized by the SC registry, which receives and processes all documents.
    • The cases are then categorised on the basis of subject matter. There are 47 broad categories such as letter petitions, public interest matters, taxation, service matters and criminal appeals. Each category has multiple sub-categories.
  • The registry notifies the roster for the benches, which is done on the basis of the subjects (or categories), and the CJI approves it. More than one bench is allocated the same subject matter.
  • The CJI can issue a specific instruction to list a case before a particular bench.
    • The CJI, as the master of roster, has the right to mark the sensitive cases to specific benches. As the institution’s head, the CJI also has the discretion to set-up larger benches.
  • The CJI is informed by registry officials that a case is sensitive.
    • It is then left to the CJI to decide if he wants to mark it as per the roster, retain it with himself or let another bench hear it.
    • As per convention, the CJI, on being informed in advance, either hears the matter or refers it to the top four judges in seniority after him.

Context

  • In the press conference — an unprecedented event in the annals of the judiciary four Judges expressed concern about the manner in which the Chief Justice of India was administering the Court.
  • They said that 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 their preferences” without any rational basis for such assignment.

Issue Area

  • First, Can the chief justice be part of the hearing, since the scandal allegedly implicates a judgment the CJI wrote, even though he has not been named in the FIR
  • Second, could a constitution bench be constituted bypassing the chief justice in violation of the current procedure through which such benches are constituted?
    • Justice Chelameswar’s order setting up a five-judge bench also made the judiciary vulnerable who disregarded existing court procedure and appointed a constitutional bench.
  • Third this violates the basic principle of law: Nemo judex in causa sua, that no one should be a judge in his own case
    • By setting himself up as a judge in his own cause and setting up a bench whose composition looks arbitrary, he has undermined the authority of the judiciary.

This issue is the court’s loss of external credibility combined with internal anarchy, which does not bode well for Indian democracy. Instead of becoming a constitutional lodestar in our turbulent times, the court has itself become a reflection of the worst rot afflicting Indian institutions.

Impact

  • This has shattered the image of Judiciary in the eye of the people
  • The confidence and trust has been broken as judiciary is not able to sort out its differences
  • The common man, who had absolute faith in the institution and in the impartiality of judges, is now let to suspect that court decisions may not be purely based on merit.

What should be the role of CJI and how cases can be allocated?

  • CJI is the master of the roster, but that does not mean that he can act arbitrarily in exercising his powers. He has to exercise his powers reasonably, without giving scope for any justifiable criticism.
  • He is also not expected to brush aside any reasonable suggestions in this regard from his colleagues
  • The CJI is the first among equals and he is the captain who has to carry the whole team with him, while enjoying their goodwill and support.
  • A just and fair roster must be one that is divided subject-wise among judges according to their experience and expertise in those subjects. Politically sensitive matters should be before the five senior judges of the Supreme Court.
  • Among them, the allocation of individual cases must be by random computer allocation not by the individual decision of any human.
  • For other cases as well, if there is more than one judge dealing with a particular subject then cases belonging to that subject should be randomly allocated among the various judges to whom that subject has been allocated.

International Experiences/Alternative Mechanism

Power is increasingly being centralized with the CJI. It calls for reform that brings accountability and transparency to the office without compromising on judicial independence

  • The highest court is the Supreme Court of the United States. It does not have to deal with the allocation of cases as all judges hear all cases which the court accepts.
    • The court hears cases in a panel of nine Justices (i.e. en banc). It is however not necessary for all judges to be present at a hearing as the quorum to decide a case is six.
    • Justices may also participate in a case by listening to audio recordings of the oral arguments and reading the transcripts.
    • The Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court, therefore, has no choice in the question of which judges will hear a case,
  • UK’s Supreme Court, has 12 judges. The justices usually hear cases in a panel of five, although they have the potential to hear cases as a panel of seven or nine depending on the importance of the appeal. Cases are allocated on a random basis at the court, although either the President or Deputy President will sit on most cases, and in specialist areas other judges with particular expertise may be selected. So in the UK, the choice is significantly constrained.
    • The President of the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom is the head of the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom
    • The Deputy President of the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom is the second most senior judge of the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom, after the President of the Supreme Court.
  • The Constitutional Court is South Africa’s highest court on constitutional matters. So its jurisdiction — the scope of its authority to hear cases — is restricted to constitutional matters and issues connected with decisions on constitutional matters. The court comprises of 11 judges and is headed by the Chief Justice of South Africa and the Deputy Chief Justice.
    • The Constitution requires that a matter be heard by a quorum of at least eight judges. In ordinary practice, all 11 judges hear every case. If any judge is absent for a long period or a vacancy arises, an acting judge may be appointed.
    • Thus here too the Chief Justice is not required to decide on the allocation of cases.

Way forward

  • There are issues of corruption in the courts. The judiciary has failed to find a mechanism to deal with allegations of corruption within its ranks. Every justice in the court needs to be above suspicion.
  • But a lot of care needs to be exercised so that the anti-corruption measures taken do not undermine the independence of the judiciary.
  • At the same time, the Judiciary should stay strong and settle issues with each other, as this will give an opportunity to politicians to fish in troubled waters.
  • All the judges of the Supreme Court, including the CJI, should sort out their differences amicably and find a satisfactory solution to the problem.
  • So the ideal way out is meaningful reform that brings accountability and transparency to the office of the chief justice, without compromising on judicial independence.

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