During August 2020, the Madras High Court registry ordered an enquiry as to how a document was leaked. The document in question is not a secret correspondence, collegium decision or any secret note. It is a government order bearing number 281 Public (Special A) dated 19.08.2020 promoting 49 senior civil judges as District Judges. The irony is that the GO has been marked to all the 49 judges, apart from others.
Surprised? What is so secret about it?
Do not be. This is how Madras High Court registry treats the subordinate judges across the state. Even this ordinary communication of promotion will not be communicated to any of the judges. Only the counter order based on the GO issued by the Registrar General of the Madras High Court will be communicated to the judges. Such is the unwarranted cloak of secrecy maintained by Madras High Court registry in all matters pertaining to subordinate judiciary.
Interestingly, the enquiry commenced by the Registry for leakage of the GO was dropped abruptly when it came to light that a notorious judicial tout named Pollachi Natarajan was behind this leakage.
While in several judgments the Madras High Court has advocated transparency, when it comes to its administrative side, the High Court wants to conduct its business like that of a secret cult.
If an ordinary GO regarding promotion of judges is kept so secret, imagine how the High Court will treat matters concerning disciplinary proceedings against subordinate judges. The general feeling among subordinate judges is that they are always given the wrong end of the stick by the High Court judges and there is no rationale, logic or reason in the way disciplinary action is initiated against some and preferential treatment given to some. However, none of the decisions of the High Court in this regard are subject to scrutiny or test.
But this raw deal is only for judges who join as Magistrates. Direct District judges are treated with kid gloves and are favoured, rue several members of the subordinate judiciary.
Some of the allegations against the directly recruited district judges are detailed in the following two articles.
Though disciplinary action has been initiated against a few of these direct district judges, they are processed on a war footing and given quick disposal. Whereas, disciplinary action against other members of subordinate judiciary are put in cold storage.
This step motherly treatment for subordinate judiciary vis-à-vis Direct District Judges (DJs) is attributed to the 2011 batch Direct DJs occupying key positions. As pointed out by this author in an earlier piece, R.Poornima, one of the Direct District Judge of 2011 batch is now the Registrar (Vigilance) who handles the complaints against all members of subordinate judiciary. Even after specific charges were made that she is acting in a partisan manner, she continues to be the Registrar Vigilance.
In fact she is Registrar-Vigilance and another Direct DJ of 2011 batch Kumarappan is Registrar General. When Poornima and a few of her batchmates decided to challenge the decision of the Madras High Court collegium regarding elevation of subordinate judiciary members as High Court Judges, the Madras High Court was put to an embarrassing position of defending its own decision against their own Registrar Vigilance in the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court, on 4 September 2020, upheld the decision of the Madras High Court collegium and dismissed the plea of Poornima and others.
To cite a few instances of step motherly treatment meted out to the subordinate judiciary members, there were several complaints against Ms Nazeema Banu, Principal District Judge, Madurai. The Madras High Court in an affidavit filed before the Supreme Court in WP (Civil) 1172 of 2019, says, “the award of the District Judge (Super time scale) (for having completed 3 years in the cadre of District Judge, Selection Grade) has been deferred for two petitioners, being petitioner No.4 and 8 after consideration of their entire service particulars and profiles and the report of the special committee for grant of Super Time Scale, while it has been granted to the other petitioners”
Petitioner No. 4 in this case is Ms. Nazeema Banu. While several subordinate judges facing minor charges are placed under suspension, serious complaints against the Direct District Judges are treated in a skewed manner.
To cite a few examples with regard to subordinate judiciary, Nargis Banu was suspended when she was Judicial Magistrate Katpadi. She is under suspension for more than four years. Pachaiyappan, was suspended when he was Judicial Magistrate in Pollachi. He continues to be under suspension for more than 3 years. Though a local enquiry on the allegations against him cleared him of all the charges, he remains under suspension till date. Sankagiri Sub-Judge Rajendra Kannan continues to be under suspension for months together.
Another case of Gunasekaran, is pathetic. He was placed under suspension on a particular charge. His suspension was revoked and he was promoted. Within a few days, he was placed under suspension again for the same charges. There was no explanation why his suspension was revoked and why he was suspended again.
Erode Additional Principal District Judge Sarvamangala was placed under suspension on her last working day.
Uma Maheswari, Principal District Judge Erode was transferred as Permanent Lok Adalat Judge and has now submitted application for voluntary retirement, fearing penal action.
Rajeswari, a Sub-Judge, who worked as Secretary, District Legal Services Authority was placed under suspension without any major charge. The list goes on. There are more than 20 subordinate judges, now under suspension without any relief either way.
In Ajay Kumar Choudhary vs Union Of India and others the Supreme Court has held about prolonged suspension as follows :
“Protracted periods of suspension, repeated renewal thereof, have regrettably become the norm and not the exception that they ought to be. The suspended person suffering the ignominy of insinuations, the scorn of society and the derision of his Department, has to endure this excruciation even before he is formally charged with some misdemeanour, indiscretion or offence. His torment is his knowledge that if and when charged, it will inexorably take an inordinate time for the inquisition or inquiry to come to its culmination, that is to determine his innocence or iniquity. Much too often this has now become an accompaniment to retirement.”
The Madras High Court too has followed this in a catena of cases. However, conveniently the HC doesn’t find it fit to apply this rule to its own.
Justice Suresh Kumar of the Madras High Court was scathing while dealing with a case of suspension of an employee of Social Welfare department. Coming down heavily on the department for keeping the employee under suspension, on 28th August 2020, Justice Suresh Kumar, ordered in WP (MD) No. 10377 of 2020 thus:
“Off late, this has become a practice that, authorities used to place the erring officials or employees under suspension for months together, years together, even decades together in some cases, however, no disciplinary proceedings would be initiated by issuing charge memo against such erring officials. Because of this cavalier attitude on the part of the authorities, who are the disciplinary authorities, heavy amount from Government exchequer are being spent every month towards the subsistence allowance without extracting any work from such employees.
Instead, if the authorities, then and there speed up the disciplinary proceedings by issuance of charge memo and conduct enquiry and complete the same in the manner known to law, all these wastage of money from Government exchequer could be avoided, but, in most of the cases, this Court have come across recently that, except placing the erring officials or employees under suspension, no further follow up action is taken up for longer period.
Even in this case also, for the past more than four months, no further action has been taken except placing the petitioner under suspension, which resulted the petitioner being placed under suspension to get 50% of his salary as subsistence allowance without extracting any work from him. Therefore, this Court wants to know why the third respondent has not so far initiated disciplinary proceedings by issuance of definite charges and the reasons for such delay, if so, shall be explained before this Court by written instructions on the next date of hearing.”
Sounds logical na ?
The Madras High Court Vigilance Committee comprises of three Honourable Justices. Justice TS Sivagnanam is the Chairman of the Committee and Justices Suresh Kumar and Satheesh Kumar are members.
Should not Justice Suresh Kumar apply the same logic he had mentioned in his order above in WP (MD) No. 10377 of 2020 to the subordinate judges also? Don’t these subordinate judges also draw subsistence allowance without any productivity ?
This is one example of the double standards adopted by the High Court.
Can one be the Judge, the Jury and the Executioner in any matter ? The High Court thinks it can be so.
The High Court Vigilance Committee is the body which deals with the charges, allegations against subordinate judiciary. Whenever a complaint is received a member of subordinate judiciary, the same will be processed by Registrar Vigilance – R.Poornima in this case – and placed before the Vigilance Committee. The Committee will decide the next course of action viz. whether to drop charges or conduct a probe by the High Court Vigilance Cell. Based on the report of the Vigilance Cell, further course of action will be decided by the Vigilance Committee whether to suspend the officer, inflict punishment or drop action.
Whatever be the decision of the Vigilance Committee the same has to be endorsed by the Administrative Committee of the Madras High Court comprising the top seven judges of MHC. Honourable Justice TS Sivagnanam, while being the Chairman of the Vigilance Committee is also a member of the Administrative Committee by virtue of his seniority.
Justice TS Sivagnanam is one of the fine judges of the Madras High Court. There is absolutely no doubt about his fairness. However, should not justice be done but also seen to be done ? Would not a suspicion arise in one’s mind that the decision taken by the Vigilance Committee headed by Justice TS Sivagnanam will blindly be endorsed by the Administrative Committee in which the same Justice Sivagnanam is a part?
However, Honourable justices of the Madras High Court are conveniently glossing over this glaring contradiction.
Several of the subordinate judges whom the author spoke for this piece, rued that there is no periodical review of the suspension of members of subordinate judiciary. However, none of them wanted to come on record for obvious reasons.
If this is the situation with regard to disciplinary action, even the due benefits to the subordinate judges are also not given in time and there is absolutely no grievance redressal mechanism. All subordinate judges who have completed 5 years of service will be awarded selection grade and judges who have completed 8 years of services will be awarded Super Time Scale. There is no mechanism to award these benefits in time and several members of the subordinate judiciary have retired without availing any of these benefits.
Another benefit to be conferred on the subordinate judges is Assured Career Progression (ACP). This is a one step pay upgradation for every five years. This benefit too has not been conferred on several judges. While the High Court Administrative Committee is very keen on penalizing erring judges, it doesn’t appear to care about the welfare of the judges.
In the age of Right to Information, it is perplexing why the Honourable Judges of Madras High Court are conducting their administration like a secret, exclusive club. There is absolutely no transparency whatsoever with regard to the administration of subordinate judiciary.
The Madras High Court went to the extent of giving different interpretation to the intention of the Right to Information Act itself to maintain its cloak of secrecy. In a judgement rendered by a Division Bench comprising Justices Paul Vasantha Kumar and Ravichandrababu, the court said, “an applicant must disclose the object for which information is sought and also satisfy that such object has a legal backing”. This ruling is contrary to the statute.
The Legislature while passing the RTI Act has specially incorporated Section 6(2) which says an applicant making request for information “shall not” be required to give any reason for requesting the information. Even after this, the High Court said, an applicant under RTI should furnish reason to seek information. **
Perplexed ? Don’t be. This is the extent to which the Madras High Court went to ensure that the subordinate judiciary is a body of voiceless slaves.
The Madras High Court which preaches justice, fairness and equality to the whole country should first deliver them to its own judges. After all they are the first step in the administration of justice to the society.
** After mounting criticism that the order of the Division Bench on RTI was against the Act itself, the Division Bench, suo motu reviewed its own order and modified it that, reasons need not be given for seeking information under RTI
Details of the original order and subsequent review :