The Verdictum: Former Supreme Court judge, Justice AK Goel

Justice AK Goel retires.
Justice AK Goel retires.

Justice AK Goel was elevated to the Supreme Court on July 7, 2014. After a tenure of a day short of four years, or 1,461 days to be precise, Justice Goel was the latest apex court judge to retire, attaining superannuation on July 6 this year.

Justice Goel enrolled at the Bar in 1974. He began his practice in the High Court of Punjab & Haryana before shifting to Delhi, where he appeared in the High Court and the Supreme Court. He was designated Senior Advocate in 1999.

He was soon elevated as a judge of the Punjab & Haryana High Court in 2001, where he later served as Acting Chief Justice from May to September 2011. In September 2011, he was transferred to the Gauhati High Court, and was made Chief Justice in December. In October 2013, he was made Chief Justice of the Orissa High Court, a post he served until he was elevated to the Supreme Court.

At his farewell held on July 6 this year, Attorney General KK Venugopal stated that the retirement age for judges ought to be increased. Venugopal was full of praise for Justice Goel, lamenting that many of the innovative thoughts and ideas of Justice Goel would remain unfulfilled because of his retirement from office.

On the same day he retired from the Supreme Court, Justice Goel was made Chairperson of the National Green Tribunal (NGT), a development that raised more than a few eyebrows, to say the least.

Monthly distribution of rulings

During his tenure at the apex court, Justice Goel was involved in a total of 288 reported orders and judgments. He authored 102 of these.

Justice Goel was most productive during the month of September, during which he produced 49 rulings. The first two months of the year were also quite fruitful, with Justice Goel passing 34 and 36 rulings in January and February respectively.

During the months leading up to the summer vacation, Justice Goel was at his least productive, having produced 16, 19, and 12 rulings in the months of March, April and May respectively.

Day-wise productivity

Justice Goel’s daily productivity fluctuated from as few as 0.09 rulings per day in May to 0.41 rulings per day in September, disregarding the vacation month of June.

Year-wise distribution of rulings

Justice Goel’s most productive year was 2015, during which he made a whopping 106 rulings. His least productive year was his penultimate year at the Apex Court, 2017, during which he made a mere 36 rulings. To put that in perspective, he managed 24 rulings in 2018 even though he was in office only for half the year.

YearNo. of rulings

Bench-wise distribution of rulings

Justice Goel was part of a Constitution Bench of five judges 8 times during his tenure. He was part of a three-judge bench 50 times. He sat on a Division Bench with 16 different Supreme Court judges over the course of close to four years.

He shared a two-judge bench most frequently with Justice (Retd.) Anil Dave, with whom he passed 88 rulings. He sat with Justice UU Lalit 39 times, and with Justice (Retd.) Gopala Gowda 30 times. He has shared a bench with three Chief Justices of India – Justice (Retd.) TS Thakur, Justice (Retd.) JS Khehar and Justice Dipak Misra.

Case-type distribution of rulings

Justice Goel passed rulings in 171 civil appeals, accounting for 59% of the total rulings passed during his tenure. The next common type of case was criminal appeals, on which he passed 85 rulings. He has also ruled on 15 writ petitions, 1 review petition and 1 Special Reference.

Notable judgments and orders

Over the course of his tenure, Justice Goel was involved in some important Supreme Court decisions. Towards the end of his career in particular, he had passed some rather controversial rulings.

For example, in Rajesh Sharma & Ors. v. State of UP & ors, he passed a slew of guidelines to be followed in cases involving Section 498A of the Indian Penal Code, which deals with cruelty against women at the hands of family members. The judgment, passed in July last year, came under heavy criticism from women’s rights groups and others for potentially diluting the protections offered to women under the provision.

Eventually, a three-judge Bench of the Supreme Court observed that it would take a relook at the judgment authored by Justice Goel.

Another judgment that was heavily criticised was the verdict in Dr. Subhash Kashinath Mahajan v. State of Maharashtra, passed in March this year. This judgment introduced safeguards to prevent misuse of the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 against officers who deal with the complaints under the Act in their official capacity.

The ruling authored by Justice Goel sparked a furore, especially among the SC/ST community, who felt that the judgment would make it more difficult to report atrocities committed against them. The Central government later filed a review petition against the judgment, and the same is pending before the Supreme Court.

In another contentious decision, Justice Goel along with Justice Arun Mishra, held the Supreme Court’s decision in Pune Municipal Corporation & Anr. v. Harakchand Misirimal Solanki to be per incuriam. The judgment, against which Justice M Shantangoudar dissented, deals with the interpretation of provisions of the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013 and the Land Acquisition Act, 1894.

The controversy behind this judgment was that the Pune Municipal Corporation judgment was also rendered by a three-judge Bench of Justices Madan Lokur and Kurian Joseph, as well former Chief Justice of India RM Lodha. CJI Dipak Misra eventually referred the matter to be decided by a Constitution Bench.

Judgments passed by Benches of which Justice Goel was a part had a bearing on a number of fields, including education, medicine and the judiciary itself, among others.

He was part of the Bench that held in Bar Council of India v. AK Balaji & Ors. that foreign law firms with foreign lawyers cannot set up offices in India. He was part of the Bench in Medical Council of India v. Christian Medical College Vellore that recalled the Court’s 2013 judgment by which it had quashed the National Eligibility Entrance Test (NEET) as unconstitutional. The exam was eventually upheld to be within the vires of the Constitution and continues to affect the lives of lakhs of medical aspirants every year.

In Krishnakant Tamrakar v. State of Madhya Pradesh, he proposed improvements to the judicial system in India. These included timely appointments of judges, need for re-engineering of the judicial structure, and contempt action against lawyers’ bodies that pass resolutions calling for strikes.

Along with Justice UU Lalit, Justice Goel was at the forefront of advocating for video recording of proceedings in the Supreme Court and the high courts.

Speaking of the judicial system, Justice Goel was part of the Constitution Bench that upheld the Collegium system in what came to be known as the historic NJAC judgment passed in October 2015.

Justice Goel had also pulled up the Central government over the finalisation of the Memorandum of Procedure (MoP) for judicial appointments. However, just after the matter was taken up on the judicial side, a three-judge Bench was constituted to dispose of the case. As a consequence, the MoP remains in a state of limbo.

Justice Goel was also part of the five-judge Bench that was set up to hear the case concerning impeachment of Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra. Quite anticlimactically, that case was withdrawn by the petitioner.

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