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Poverty of dignity

Indian judges have to perform within a system which is mostly corrupt and basically incompetent. Yet, when they deliver judgments, they are scrutinised carefully. At the same time, the system fails to pay our judges a salary that can add dignity to their arduous tasks. The chief justice of India has pointed this out recently

By Sujit Bhar

A lot of talk these days revolves around how the judicial system of the country has been a laggard, and how justice is almost always delayed. While there may be truth in some of that, there is a tendency to put the judiciary in the dock for every ill that plagues the legal system of the country. There is little talk, however, about how handicapped the Indian judiciary is, vis-a-vis its counterparts in other countries, or even other employees of the Indian government’s many departments.

One such issue came to the surface recently when Chief Justice of India (CJI) DY Chandrachud, while hearing a petition from the All India Judges’ Association, made a comment that has shocked the public. The simple question put forward by the CJI was: “Retired district judges are getting a pension of Rs 19,000-20,000 after a long service, how will they survive?”

Does the figure sound absurd? Let us put this in perspective. Within the Indian Railways, the country’s second largest employer after the armed forces, the pay scale of a Class IV employee (now known as Group D employees) varies depending on the level of post and the location of the employee, but as of 2023, the basic pay scale for Group D employees ranges from Rs 18,000 to Rs 56,900 per month.

Who are classified as Class IV (or Group D) staff? They include daftries, jamadars, peons, chowkidars and sweepers.

This is the situation, even within the usually low paying government system of India. Maybe this isn’t a fair comparison, or maybe it is. But the fact is that district judges put in enough work, and possibly share an unusual portion of the responsibility of a decision that he/she had to make within a system that is inherently corrupt and admittedly incompetent. And when the system is less than competent, wrong decisions by district judges can happen. One wrong decision by a district judge has the potential to ruin his/her career. And it takes 10-15 years of hard work for a district judge to be considered to be promoted to a High Court.

The CJI and the judges have asked Attorney General R Venkataramani to help with an “equitable solution”.

Within this, the CJI also pointed out that some High Court judges have approached the Supreme Court over non-payment of salaries as they were not allotted new General Provident Fund (GPF) accounts after their promotion from the district judiciary.

The CJI also made a very practical observation. This was in reply to a possible argument that these district judges, after retirement, could also go back to law practice, and income from that should be enough to supplement their incomes, whatever the pension amount may be.

The CJI minced no words in saying: “This is the kind of office where you become completely incompetent. You can’t jump into practice suddenly and go to the High Court at the age of 61-62 years,” he said. “We want a proper solution to this. You know the district judge is really suffering,” the CJI said.

The Attorney General has said he would look into the issue, but one has to wait and see how much is delivered.

There have been many recommendations of the Second National Judicial Pay Commission and they need to be carried out quickly, the Court said. The recommendations cover pay structure, pension and family pension and allowances, besides a permanent mechanism to determine subjects related to service conditions of the district judiciary.

Independence and dignity

The Supreme Court has said earlier that judicial independence, an essential pre-requisite to preserve the citizens’ confidence in the rule of law, can only be ensured as long as judges can live with a sense of financial dignity. And this extends to their condition post-retirement as well.

“The post-retirement conditions of service have a crucial bearing on the dignity and independence of the office of a judge and how it is perceived by society. If the service of the judiciary is to be a viable career option so as to attract talent, the conditions of service both for working and retired officers must offer security and dignity,” the bench of Justices DY Chandrachud, JB Pardiwala and Manoj Misra had said.

The independence and dignity issue cannot be overstated. A judge is a professional who is qualified to hear various legal cases and is in charge of conducting elaborate trials and is then expected to deliver an unbiased verdict based on the evidence available, with the explicit purpose of serving justice to the people. Compared to any professional from any field, these demands, especially within a corrupt, incompetent and lethargic system are huge. Moreover, at the district judge level, personal security is not mandated, hence difficult observances by the judge remain inherently risky.

If a judge has to maintain his/her composure and dignity, an issue that reflects in the dignity of the court itself, he/she cannot be fed scraps while expected to deliver a buffet. What the CJI has tried to say is that this is patently unfair.

Poverty of attitude

The current salaries of the Supreme Court and High Court judges, as per the amendment bill passed in 2017, have been increased from Rs 90,000 to Rs 2.5 lakh per month. The highest paying judge in the country is the chief justice of India, who has a salary of Rs 30 lakh per annum.

The entire approach of the government in deciding salaries of even top executives of the government does not seem to be encouraging. Sure, these judges get government bungalows, sometimes really plush ones, and surely these judges get all the help at home they can possibly want. All those perks, plus the honour associated with the post, are definitely something they deserve.

However, consider two things that emanate from the above. The first is that the salaries that the judges get cannot by themselves ensure a good life after retirement, leave alone money to buy a good house. That is why retired High Court and Supreme Court judges now prefer arbitration jobs that could pay them a month’s salary off just one sitting in a day. It does not add much prestige or financial lure to the existing job of the judge, though.

The second is the current salary structure, which many judges are happy with. Observations in the 2023–2024 placement season found that IIT campus placement package offers averaged Rs 15-30 lakh per annum, with IIT Patna’s biggest offer package being Rs 1 crore. These are entry level packages.

To become a judge, aspiring candidates pursue various undergraduate and postgraduate law courses, such as LLB, BA LLB, BBA LLB, and B Com LLB from top law colleges in India, admission to which are done on the basis of law entrance exams such as CLAT, LSAT, and AILET.

Frankly, the route is as arduous for every law practitioner as in any other field. It would not be fair to compare a judge’s emoluments with the incomes of successful lawyers in any court, because of the difference in responsibilities, but what the current CJI has said is a matter of maintaining dignity, a prime reason to be upright and respectful of the law.

Without making any comparison with salaries in any other field, one cannot really appreciate the fact that the average starting salary of a judge in India is a mere Rs 5.43 lakh per annum. Then there are inbuilt biases, such as salary structures depending on which court they are associated with, be it a metropolitan magistrate or judges at the Supreme Court or high courts and district courts.

The average salaries of judges of a High Court and of district courts is Rs 10.7 lakh and Rs 8 lakh per annum, respectively. By any standard, these are poor emoluments, and the country would not look good in any international forum.

Pride and dignity is what the government needs to assure our people and our judges.

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