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Justice Shiva Kirti Singh was elevated to the Supreme Court of India on September 19, 2013. After a tenure that lasted a little over three years, Justice Singh retired in November last year.
Justice Singh’s father was a judge of the Patna High Court, while his maternal grandfather, Justice BP Sinha, was the sixth Chief Justice of India, from 1959 to 1964.
Justice Shiva Kirti Singh enrolled as an advocate in 1977 and was designated a Senior Advocate thirteen years later. In 1998, he was appointed as a judge of the Patna High Court, where he served as Acting Chief Justice for four months. He was later transferred as Chief Justice of the Allahabad High Court in October 2012.
In this interview with Bar & Bench’s Murali Krishnan, Justice Shiva Kirti Singh speaks about his days at Sainik school, the tussle between Centre and Supreme Court and his suggestions on improving the Collegium system.
Murali Krishnan: In your school days, you were an NDA aspirant. Could you take us through those days?
Justice Shiva Kirti Singh: In the 1960s, after the China aggression, Sainik schools were initiated and opened in almost all States across the country. In Bihar too, there was one Sainik school at Tilaiya, (currently it is in Jharkhand). Since I was not doing well in academics, I was sent there. The classes and physical training that happens in Sainik schools is aimed at preparing students for NDA. So, I was mentally prepared for it.
And then it happened that my myopia exceeded the permissible limit. It was a big setback for a young student. All my aspirations went down the drain.
But I remember the words of one Brigadier Habibullah, who was visiting our school. He said,
“Son don’t worry, fate must have something better in store for you. These failures don’t matter in life. Ultimately, there will be something better.”
MK: How did you decide to take up law?
SKS J.: Initially, I was not prepared for the legal profession. But later, when I knew that I could not join NDA, I decided that I wanted to do law. So, when I joined college, I opted for Arts-History instead of Science-History. Subsequently, I completed Masters in Political Science and then pursued law.
MK: You belong to that rare breed of judges who listen to lawyers patiently, whether junior or senior. The Bar was always affectionate to you for the same.
SKS J.: Hearing is not an empty formality. Howsoever ready as a judge I maybe, I may still have certain reservations and certain areas may still be grey. So, only after hearing the counsel, one is able to make up the mind whether a matter requires notice and further hearing.
Hearing out the lawyer is beneficial to the judge too. If we listen to a case for four to five minutes, and if there is some additional point which is well articulated by the lawyer, then it forces us to re-think and may be change our mind. So, a fair chance should be given to the matter.
Importantly, the satisfaction which members of the Bar derive would be immense. They must go back with the feeling that they were heard by the judge.
That is my personal view. Of course, judges are very hard pressed for time and it is not easy to expect them to give too much latitude. They have to manage time and complete the board.
MK: How was it in High Courts in comparison to the Supreme Court?
SKS J.: In High Courts, we give more time to original matters like writ petitions. Also, we have to be very patient. For instance, there are days when pleadings are not complete or some additional aspects have to be highlighted and more material is needed. Then we proceed to adjourn the matter. So it is a more gradual and slightly longer procedure. Due to that, we come to know of a matter in-depth.
However, in Supreme Court, it is like a high-speed vehicle on an express highway. To be in control and command over such a high speed vehicle needs constant mental alertness and readiness. So, it is definitely more demanding.
Moreover, by the time judges reach Supreme Court they become more responsible and mature. We realise that Supreme Court judgments lay down the law for the whole country. So the alertness level is naturally much more.
MK: But don’t you think the Supreme Court over-steps its limits many times?
SKS J.: Yes, conflicts do arise. Those who have been assigned powers in legislative field, at times, have genuine concerns whether the courts are over-stepping their limits. So, judges are constantly reminding themselves that they should not legislate.
But if people’s fundamental rights are affected, due to lack of legal protection, then courts have to step in to protect people indicating that the vacant field or lacunae in law should be filled up by the legislature at the earliest.
But yes, power is like a potent drink. Too much of power makes one intoxicant, therefore it has to be curtailed. Power tends to become absolute and absolute power is bad anywhere. There has to be check and balances.
MK: In this context, let me go back to your farewell speech –regarding judicial appointments and the Collegium system. What is your primary concern with the Collegium system?
SKS J.: The major concern that I have is ‘people’s satisfaction’. By people, I mean laymen as well as people who are practising law and aspire to become judges. They should have the satisfaction that the process is fair and that somebody has assessed the merits of the candidates.
The Collegium system was introduced with a very good intention. It was introduced to ensure that one single person’s whims and fancies don’t turn the table when it comes to selecting judges. So a combined view of the most experienced judges was expected to give more weightage and authority to the selection process. I still hold that it is a good system but additional safeguards are needed.
People’s expectations have risen due to various factors like experience, increase in literacy levels etc. Moreover, there is a lot of criticism [about Collegium] from the other organs of the State.
Therefore, the judiciary will now have to evolve and improve in order to retain its credibility. So, my suggestion is to form a body of retired judges and eminent jurists etc. as an adjunct to the Collegium. An initial list of candidates will be shortlisted and send to this body. This body can then use appropriate methods like interviewing the candidates and prepare a merit list.
So I am suggesting a major tweak in the Collegium with the power continuing to vest with the judiciary. I do not want the power of judicial appointments to go outside the judiciary.
MK: What do you have to say about the tussle between Centre and Supreme Court?
SKS J.: These are temporary things. There cannot be a tussle in our Constitutional framework. We are too strong under this very elaborate Constitution. Tussle is only on account of passing concerns and passing personalities. Personalities don’t matter for a nation. They come and go. But the institutions are well-founded, well-grounded and well-balanced. They have good support and foundation under the Constitution and are well protected by Constitutional provisions. So I don’t see much conflict or threat to the nation.
Ultimately there is a procedure by which any error can be corrected if it starts troubling the nation. There is nothing which cannot be corrected. So I see these frictions as temporary.
MK: At your farewell, you also spoke about how you started getting a lot of briefs even as a novice and why you had to go into a shell when you came to know about the reason.
SKS J. I wanted to convey that being a relative of a judge creates a lot of problems for a young lawyer. During my first two years in the profession, my father was a judge and I never tried to hide that. Those years were a very testing time for me. I was a young man and I had my own ideals. So, when I realised that people were coming to avail my services not based on my merits but due to certain other reasons, it was very shocking.
So, I indicated in my farewell speech that established lawyers should take precautions not to encourage such activities. I wanted to remind those in the legal profession that we have some duties to prevent such wrong practices. One individual cannot create bad practices, others collaborate. So, we have to be cautious.
MK: Our conversation began with the workload on the Supreme Court? Could you elaborate?
SKS J.: I feel Supreme Court has become very accommodative. It has taken so much weight upon itself that there is a chance of the Court sinking under that weight. So the Court has to be very cautious and draw a line. Importantly, the Bar has to help.
Both the Bar and the Bench should devise means to keep the workload within manageable limits. According to me, one solution, is to raise the retirement-age of judges in order to retain experienced judges for two or three more years. Their expertise and knowledge can then be put to use for deciding constitutionally important matters, not SLPs. If one Constitutional question is resolved, then that might help in disposing thousands of matters at the threshold itself and can help save time.
MK: What do you have to say about the salary of judges, which are considered below par?
SKS J.: Now that I have retired, I have no hesitation in saying that the salary received by judges of High Courts and the Supreme Court, is too meagre. From my experience after interaction with others, what I have found out is that a judge of a High Court or Supreme Court is not absolutely free of financial worries after retirement. That is not ideal. Too much money is not needed but at the same time there should be ample reward for doing ‘high-pressure’ work for so many years. At least no honest, hard-working judge should feel that he is not getting a fair deal after retirement.
All stakeholders must realise that judiciary is the ultimate safety valve for the society and nation. So, judges need to be handled in a better way remuneration-wise.
MK: How do you envisage the role of the Supreme Court in the coming years?
SKS J.: Supreme Court has a very tough and challenging role to play because of the historical context and the changes taking place in our society. We won our independence very recently. In the history of a nation, 70 years is very short a time-span. However, within this short period, the changes in the society and in people’s lives have been astonishing. People have moved from bullock carts to aeroplanes in a short period.
The way the social, economic and political scenarios have changed has led to a lot of conflicts. This in turn can be attributed to the fact that a lot of rights have arisen which are conflicting, and people’s expectations have also risen. The new found knowledge, wealth and literacy reflects in people’s mentality. They are not ready to give up their rights until they test it at the apex court. These aspirations cannot be blamed; Instead we have to meet those aspirations as a Court.
Secondly, being the foremost Constitutional court, it is the duty of the Supreme Court to see that the Constitution works. So, both the text of the Constitution and historical context require this court to play a very important role at this juncture. I am sure that the Court will find its moorings in a more perfect way sooner than later.