• Nisha Gupta

The Supreme Court Controversy: The Master of the Roster Conundrum

Article 124 of the Constitution of India deals with the establishment of the Supreme Court of India (SC). Article 124(1) explains the relationship of the Chief Justice of India (CJI) vis-a-vis other Supreme Court justices. While some may regard the CJI as the “head of the SC” and a supposed “head of the other judges”, it is important to be thorough with the role of the CJI in the Indian judicial system to truly understand the ongoing crisis in the SC.

Despite the prestige and power of the office of CJI within the Indian judiciary, the additional responsibilities that the office bequeaths are largely administrative. Ergo, the Chief Justice has the same power as other judges of the Supreme Court in the judicial domain. Hence, on a bench, the Chief Justice’s vote carries only as much weightage as that of his other companion judges- hence the use of the oft quoted expression “first among equals”.

Apart from the administrative roles of appointing officers and servants of the Court (Article 146), moving high court judges from one to another (Article 222), deciding to sit the Supreme Court outside of New Delhi with the President’s approval (Article 130), the Chief Justice is also the Master of Roster or the Master of Rolls.

Read: Supreme Court Advocate Nipun Saxena's take on the Master of the Roster Controversy.

A roster is a list of persons who are supposed to perform certain legal duties when called upon in their turn. Therefore, it comes under the purview of the Chief Justice as the Master of Roster to allot cases and constitute appropriate benches to handle cases. In simple words, the Chief Justice has the authority to determine which judges handle each case that comes before the Supreme Court.

The roster is prepared by the Registrar (J-I) under the orders of the Chief Justice. It may contain general or special instructions regarding allocation of work to a Bench and assignment of work of a Bench to another Bench, in the case of non-availability. To meet contingencies, the Chief Justice may direct the Registrar to prepare roster instructions or amendments for re-allocation of judicial work. The roster instructions and amendments shall be prepared in such a manner to ensure that no judicial time is wasted. In a case where a Bench directs listing of a case before another Bench, for any reason whatsoever, the matter shall be placed by the Registrar in front of the Chief Justice for further orders.

Therefore, the decision of the Chief Justice becomes integral regarding the allocation of cases among the Supreme Court judges for the smooth functioning of the business of the Court. Again, as the first among equals, the Constitution does not give the Chief Justice any additional powers over the other judges – directly or indirectly.

In the light of recent allegations made by the four senior judges of the SC, raised over the exercise of this function by the Chief Justice, a new subject-wise roster system will be introduced in the Supreme Court from 5th February 2018.

Contrary to popular opinion, it does not curtail the powers of the Chief Justice but ensures that well-settled conventions that ought to guide the CJI in allotment of important cases are adhered to. According to this new roster, all the Public Interest Litigations (PILs) and Letter Petitions (a novel mechanism that allows certain classes of affected persons, such as bonded laborers, women who are victims of atrocities, etc., to petition the supreme court by just a simple letter) will be heard by a Bench headed by the Chief Justice. The thirteen-page notification also lays down the subject headings for the twelve senior judges, highlighting the types of matters they will hear. This new system is not only expected to add more transparency to the system but also aid the Chief Justice in his role as the Master of Roster.

About the Author

Nisha Gupta is a budding lawyer, MUNer, and an avid Manchester United Football Club fan. Nisha graduated from DPS International School, and is currently pursuing B.B.A. LL.B. from National Law University, Jodhpur. With a flair for words, she takes a keen interest in expanding her horizons and outlook on life through reading, and for the lives of those around her, by writing (and talking a lot).

Image Courtesy: SCC Online

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