The Bar Council of India (BCI) has issued a rather harsh statement criticizing Justice AK Goel for objecting to the elevation of Justice Surya Kant as Chief Justice of the Himachal Pradesh High Court.
On January 14, Bar & Bench had referred to a possible controversy that could arise on the elevation of Justice Surya Kant to the Supreme Court. The report referred to a letter written by Justice AK Goel last year, objecting to the elevation of Justice Kant as Chief Justice of Himachal Pradesh High Court until an inquiry was conducted into the allegations against him.
In reaction to this article, the BCI has criticized Justice Goel, going to the extent of asking whether any inquiry was conducted against him “or any other judge as Chief Justice of any High Court or to the Supreme Court”. The statement also calls into question how Justice AK Goel became the Chairperson of the National Green Tribunal (NGT) within two days of his retirement. It has further criticized “the anti-lawyer judgments” of Justice AK Goel, which had brought “anguish to the Bar” and the BCI.
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While doing so, the BCI has also staunchly defended Justices Surya Kant and Bhushan Gavai, who, if rumours are to be believed, will be elevated to the Supreme Court.
At this point, it becomes relevant to look into the allegations levelled against Justice Kant, as revealed in Justice Goel’s letter to the then Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra.
But first, a little background on the controversy that has once again cropped up.
Justice AK Goel had penned a letter to then CJI Dipak Misra (On January 12, 2018 – the same day as the Judges Press Conference) disagreeing with the proposal to appoint Justice Surya Kant as Chief Justice of the Himachal Pradesh High Court. This, after the Supreme Court Collegium had, on January 11, 2018, recommended Justice Kant for appointment as Chief Justice of the Punjab & Haryana High Court. CJI Misra had asked Justice Goel’s opinion on certain allegations made against Kant J. prior to his elevation. In his letter, Justice Goel had expressed his disagreement with the Collegium recommendation, until an inquiry into the allegations against Justice Kant was conducted.
Justice Goel’s opinion eventually counted for little, with the Collegium sticking by its initial decision. Thus, by a notification dated October 3, 2018, Justice Kant was appointed as Chief Justice of the Himachal Pradesh High Court. Goel J’s calls for an inquiry into the allegations made against Kant J never took place, and the controversy was seemingly swept under the carpet.
The BCI’s response
And now, the BCI has deemed the allegations made against Justice Surya Kant as “false, vague baseless, and bald”.
BCI Chairman Manan Kumar Mishra does not, however, give any reason as to why he feels that the charges are vague and baseless. There is no reference to any inquiry undertaken to belie the charges against Justice Kant.
All the statement does is make scathing comments against Justice Goel.
“There arises a simple question, whether any enquiry had been conducted before the elevation of Justice Goel or any other Judge as Chief Justice of any High Court or to the Supreme Court? Whether any enquiry was conducted in order to verify the reason as to how and why Mr. Justice Goel became the Chairperson of National Green Tribunal within 2-3 days of his retirement.”
The BCI Chairman then states:
“the Members of the Bar are of the clear opinion that such letter against Mr. Justice Surya Kant has absolutely no substance and is fit to be ignored. Since, Mr. Justice Surya Kant and Mr. Justice Gawai, both have brilliant carrier (sic) and are upright judges and are likely to become Chief Justice of India, therefore, false, vague, baseless, bald allegations are bound to be made.”
(The full statement of the BCI Chairman is below)
What are the allegations against Justice Surya Kant? And are these allegations baseless?
Now, we take a look at the allegations against Justice Kant, which Justice Goel felt needed further probing. As per Justice Goel’s letter to the CJI, allegations of corruption in the passing of bail orders in narcotics cases, and undervaluation of properties to avoid payment of tax, among others, were made against the judge.
Undervaluation of properties purchased
As per an affidavit by a Chandigarh-based businessman filed in the Supreme Court, Justice Kant had undertaken a number of transactions with regard to properties in Delhi and Punjab, wherein he undervalued the properties at the time of sale, ostensibly to evade taxes and stamp duties on the said transactions.
The deponent lists a total of eight properties owned by the judge in Punjab, Haryana, Delhi, and Himachal Pradesh, amounting to a total market value of Rs. 101.5 crore. As per the affidavit, all of these properties involved evasion of appropriate stamp duty and violation of various tax laws.
Bail in Drug Cases
Another deponent, who is currently lodged in jail, has alleged that Justice Surya Kant passed bail orders in serious cases under the Narcotics and Psychotropic Substances Act (NDPS Act) involving huge commercial quantities of narcotic drugs.
As per Secton 37(b) NDPS Act, no person accused of offences involving commercial quantity of narcotics shall be released on bail, unless the Court has reason to believe that he is not guilty of the said offence and that he is not likely to commit an offence while on bail. It is alleged that the judge, while granting bail in these cases, did not give sufficient reasons for passing the orders.
It is further alleged that a number of persons, including the judge’s brother and his nephew, openly assured people that they would get a favourable order if the judge was “properly bribed”. Bribes amounting to a total Rs. 3.1 crore were paid to get various persons accused under the NDPS Act out on bail, it is alleged.
Charges of corruption and casteism in the appointment of subordinate judicial officers were also made against the judge.
Justice Goel’s opinion on the allegations
On the undervaluation of properties, Justice Goel noted that no verification was done by expert valuers. However, he was of the opinion that these allegations deserved a second look.
“While a part of the complaint relates to merits of judicial orders, the complaint of receiving bribe and nexus with the persons mentioned in the complaint involves serious misconduct. Eight bail orders referred to in the complaint (annexed), prima facie, appear to be unusual and not sound in law. It may be very difficult to verify allegation of corruption directly. However, certain circumstances including acquisition of assets by the Judge, after elevation, can be certainly looked into.”On the allegation involving the narcotics cases, Justice Goel had opined,
While the rumours regarding Justice Surya Kant’s elevation may not be true and the allegations made against him (after an inquiry) may also turn out to be baseless, the whole controversy prompts the question of whether the system of appointment of judges needs tweaking, a notion that even a former member of the Collegium agrees with.
Read Statement given by Manan Kumar Mishra, Chairman, Bar Council of India: