Last year, the Supreme Court resolved for time bound disposal of criminal cases against politicians. But the judicial system is silent when it comes to taking timely and appropriate action against judicial officers found guilty of ‘compromising’ their judgements in exchange of bribes or other favours, as seen in a recent case of a suspended additional district and sessions judge, writes VIVEK GUPTAfrom Chandigarh.
CORRUPTION has been undermining the judicial system in India for some time. But what has worsened the situation is the lack of mandate of the judicial system in setting up examples by swift action against judicial officers found guilty of corruption or other serious compromises of their integrity.
A recent case in the Punjab and Haryana High Court is an indicator of the complacency of the high court in taking timely and appropriate action against an additional district and sessions judge, who was indicted by a high court-appointed inquiry in 2018 for ‘compromising’ his judicial order in exchange of a bribe.
The enquiry report was submitted to the disciplinary/vigilance committee of the high court in March 2018, but no final disciplinary action has yet been taken against the said judge.
The judge in question, Hemant Gopal, was suspended by the full court of high court in April 2014 after the latter received a complaint levelling serious allegations against him.
The complaint was pertaining to one of Gopal’s judgements (as a special judge of CBI Court, Patiala) dated April 20, 2013 in which former Congress MLA Mangat Rai Bansal and 21 others were convicted in a 14-year-old case of paddy embezzlement.
The allegations against the said judge were that he acquitted a co-accused in this case in exchange of a bribe of INR 40 lakh. He also allegedly sought money from the other accused; when not paid, he convicted them later.
Based on the complaint, the high court ordered the probe under the District and Sessions Judge, Panchkula, who later held him guilty of the allegations.
The operative part of the enquiry report, submitted to HC in 2018 read as under: “Per discussion and findings recorded, I hold that all the allegations as contained in Article of Charge, are proved against the delinquent Officer, Shri Hemant Gopal, Additional District & Sessions Judge (under suspension with headquarters at Faridkot).”
A law officer with the Punjab government who ‘struck a deal’ on behalf of Gopal has been dismissed from service.
“Vigilance/Disciplinary committee sitting over the enquiry report”
A petition by the convicted ex-MLA Rai Bansal filed before the high court in August this year brought to notice that the vigilance/disciplinary committee of the high court had been virtually sitting over the said enquiry report that it had officially received in March 2018.
The accused sought stay on his conviction on the ground that the said judge who had convicted him in 2013 was already found guilty of corruption charges in the enquiry report and further, that the high court had not taken any final decision till date despite the inquiry indicting him in 2018.
Based on the petition, a single judge bench of Justice Arvind Sangwan stayed Rai Bansal’s conviction, besides asking the high court’s registrar (responsible for administrative work of high court) to file an affidavit on why no final decision was taken against the said judge on the basis of the enquiry report.
The high court registrar, in his affidavit that was reproduced in Justice Sangwan’s order dated August 30 (in which Rai Bansal’s conviction was stayed) revealed that on receiving the departmental enquiry report dated March 31, 2018 from Enquiry Officer-cum-District and Sessions Judge, Panchkula against the indictment of Hemant Gopal, the same was approved by the Vigilance/Disciplinary Committee on July 25, 2018. Thereafter, a show cause notice was issued to the suspended judge, who submitted a reply on August 23, 2018.
The Vigilance/Disciplinary Committee, as per the affidavit, again met three months later on November 28, 2018, and decided to give a personal hearing to the suspended judge.
As the affidavit revealed, the personal hearing of the suspended judge came 15 months later on February 6, 2020. However, the matter was again deferred for further consideration.
“It appears that since February 2020, the matter is pending before the Vigilance/Disciplinary Committee,” read the registrar’s affidavit.
Currently, Rai Bansal’s complaint seeking a direction for concluding the disciplinary proceedings against the suspended judge is pending before a division bench of Justices Jaswant Singh and Sant Parkash.
It was deferred on September 30 after Vikas Chatrath, an advocate appearing for the high court, prayed for a short adjournment to seek instructions. It will now come up for hearing on October 26, that is, tomorrow.
Last year, the Supreme Court resolved for time bound disposal of criminal cases against law makers. But who will ensure timely action to weed out corrupt practices within the judiciary, which otherwise instructs other institutions to follow rule of law?
The rules regulating the recruitment and the conditions of service of the persons appointed to the district courts in Punjab are covered under the Punjab Superior Judicial Service Rules, last amended in 2007. Similar rules are framed in other states as well.
Under Rule 21, it is mentioned that the administrative control over the members of the service shall vest absolutely in the High Court. The recommendation of the high court in disciplinary matters involving major penalty of removal, dismissal, premature or voluntary retirement, as the case may be, shall be binding on the government for the purpose of the final orders
But the problem arises when there are no time bound recommendations.
Chandigarh based advocate Arjun Sheoran, who is also the national organising secretary at People’s Union For Civil Liberties, told The Leaflet that in all disciplinary proceedings, the rule of natural justice is applied, as per which it is very clear that one has to take an appropriate decision within a reasonable time frame.
“In the said case, there is no justification why the disciplinary action against the suspended judge is pending since 2018. Even if we set aside the last one year of COVID-induced delays, there was still enough time for the said committee to make up its mind on the suitable action,” said Sheoran.
On many occasions in the past, the Punjab and Haryana High Court has ordered the premature compulsory retirement of lower court judges, which, many in the judiciary believe, amounts to ‘soft handling’ of the matter.
As per Rule 20 of the Punjab Superior Judicial Service Rules, the high court, in public interest, may recommend premature retirement of an officer on completion of fifteen years of service or at any time thereafter, subject to the condition that in the event of such retirement, the officer shall be entitled to the benefit of pension and other retirement benefits proportionately as admissible.
Only last year in December, the high court compulsorily retired two additional district and sessions judges.
A Punjab and Haryana High Court panal advocate, who wished not to be named, told The Leaflet that there should be no delay in concluding department proceedings against judges in question. The working of the vigilance/disciplinary committees may be made time-bound. The Supreme Court has already said this in the case of lawmakers.
“High Court, on the judicial side, can always ask the High Court, on the administrative side, to expedite decisions on any issue,” he added.
(Vivek Gupta is an independent journalist from Chandigarh. The views expressed are personal.)