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The Supreme Court has ruled that a judge who retires as an Acting Chief Justice of a High Court is not entitled to the same pensionary benefits available to retired Chief Justices of High Courts.
The decision was rendered by a Bench of Justices Arun Mishra, MR Shah, and BR Gavai in a petition filed by Justice (Retd.) K Sreedhar Rao, who superannuated in 2015.
Justice Rao was elevated as a judge of the Karnataka High Court in 2000, and was transferred to the Gauhati High Court as a puisne judge thereafter. In 2014, he was appointed Acting Chief Justice of the Gauhati High Court, and retired from service a year later.
Justice Rao’s claim for pensionary benefits at par with those of retired Chief Justices was rejected by the Ministry of Law and Justice, prompting him to file a petition before the Supreme Court.
The Court, while dismissing the petition, stated that there was a clear distinction between judges appointed as Acting Chief Justices under Article 223 and Chief Justices appointed under Article 217 of the Constitution of India. The period served as Acting Chief Justice is, however, taken into account while computing the upper ceiling of the pension entitled, the Court held.
The period of 14 months served by Justice Rao as Acting Chief Justice is, therefore, required to be treated as the time he served as the Chief Justice, for the computation of his pension. For the rest of the period of service, his pension is to be computed as judge of High Court. Citing a precedent laid down by the Supreme Court in this regard in the case of Syad Sarvar Ali, the Court said,
” the rules containing First Schedule are conscious of the fact that the retiring incumbent may be a Judge or a Chief Justice or may have acted as an Acting Chief Justice for a period of time where for the purpose of calculating the quantum of pension, the period spent by a Judge as an Acting Chief Justice is taken into consideration for the purpose of fixing the ceiling. It is further observed that however, an Acting Chief Justice, who is one appointed under Article 223 of the Constitution is not equated with the Chief Justice appointed under Article 217 of the Constitution.”
The Court also elaborated that when the seat of the Chief Justice remains vacant, another judge of the High Court often performs the duties of the Chief Justice for the duration of such vacancy. For that limited period and for the limited purpose of salary, the Acting Chief Justice is treated at par with the Chief Justice. This parity cannot be assumed for any other purposes, particularly pension.
The Court thus dismissed the petition while holding:
“The petitioner is not entitled to the pensionary benefits including the ceiling in the pension as may be available to a retired Chief Justice.”
Senior Advocate Kailash Vasdev appeared for Justice Sreedhar Rao, while Senior Advocate V Mohana represented the Union.