Who is a Judge? Solving the Problem of Insufficiency of Judicial Data

It takes little effort to collate and upload information about a judge, the scarcity of information has become a norm largely because nobody has ever asked for accountability for such omissions.
Who is a Judge? Solving the Problem of Insufficiency of Judicial Data

I recently participated in the Summer of Data Program organized by Justice Hub under the mentorship of Prof. Rangin Pallav Tripathy of National Law University Odisha and Civic Data Lab, to create a data base of profiles of the backgrounds of various Indian High Court judges. Over the course of five weeks, our objective was to find as much information (their backgrounds, tenure and professional trajectory etc.) as we could, about former and present judges of various Indian High Courts (from October 6, 1993 to May 31, 2021). The thumb-rule was that we were restricted to only refer to official High Court websites and the Judges Handbook issued by the Department of Justice of the Ministry of Law and Justice in India. The reason for this limitation was to test how transparent our judicial system was in keeping the data as authentic as possible. The exercise is the brainchild of Prof. Tripathy.

He previously published a paper by making a similar data base of the Indian Supreme Court judges. In his study, he concluded that even when judges have disclosed information concerning an indicator, the extent of information shared was often minimal. However, he noted that some disturbing observation was that, there profiles of three judges were absolutely blank – not even a basic biographical information was available. He also makes a more fundamental point about why we need to have access to a judge’s background. There are serious questions to be raised about a judge who is elevated to the Bench. For example, if a judge is appointed from the Bar, did they ever represent a private company or if they have any affiliation to or were an active member of a political party or what was their performance as a judge in the subordinate judiciary, so on and so forth? All such questions while merely illustrative, highlight the points that people need to know about their judges.

In internal discussions, a counter-point also emerged. Judges by the very nature of their profession are required to be anonymous and remain away from the eyes of society. Hence, they should make available as less information about themselves as possible in the public domain. At face value, the argument reiterates one of the points enumerated in a Charter called the “Restatement of Values of Judicial Life” adopted by the Indian Supreme Court in 1997. Out of the 16 guiding principles, point six states that “A judge should practice a degree of aloofness consistent with the dignity of his office.”

Recently, the current Chief Justice also made a remark consistent with this principle, stating “The best judge is one who is less known and seen in the media.” However, approaching the problem arising from insufficiency of judicial data as an engagement with the media or the public would be misunderstanding one of the most primary reasons for the demand. Availability of judicial data should be done envisioning a larger objective of building trust amongst people upon whom the judge will eventually adjudicate. A significant point that Prof. Tripathy makes in his paper is that “Trusting someone is not the same as relying on someone.” One does not trust someone in whom they do not have faith. And with trust comes the burden of betrayal, in case they fail to honour their commitment. It is in this sense that we should look at the problem – to help build a more trustworthy institution.

The best aspect about the project is that the data base we created can be accessed by anyone and would be available on Justice Hub. This will open up countless possibilities for further research and researchers in turn can analyze and collaborate using the data to identify patterns over the years. I was assigned the task of profiling judges of the Punjab and Haryana High Court (P&H HC). I profiled judges from 1993 onwards. The website of P&H HC is one of the websites that has the least amount of data about its judges. It only shows the date on which the judge was appointed and the date they left the High Court. In few cases, even full names of the judges are missing and only abbreviations are available. Whereas, some other High Court’s websites (like Bombay and Allahabad) have detailed profiles and were a helpful source of information about judges who were transferred either to or from these courts.

It takes little effort to collate and upload information, about a judge who is elevated to the Bench. The scarcity of information has become a norm largely because nobody has ever asked for accountability for such omissions. There have been growing calls for adequate representation of people (in terms of geography, gender and caste) at the higher judiciary. However, there is no data available to systematically analyze this question and look for a solution. Similarly, there is no way to analyze the performance of the collegium system and if it has provided any relief to the questions of representation or independence of the Judiciary. I see the data base about various High Courts as a beginning of a long journey towards ensuring the need for publicly available data about the judiciary and the judges who represent it.

Author: Varun Ahuja 4th year BA LLB student at Vivekananda Institute of Professional Studies, Delhi.

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