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Watch | The Justice Brief: Decoding ‘The Master of Roster’

The Wire has a new multimedia show called ‘The Justice Brief, With Saurav Das,’ which will transcend headlines and dive deep into the heart of legal matters.

In this digital realm where information floods our screens, ‘The Justice Brief’ hopes to stand out as your beacon of legal clarity. Whether you’re a legal enthusiast, a curious citizen, or someone simply navigating the intricacies of justice, this show is your compass through the complex terrain of law and courts.

In the inaugural episode, I elaborate upon one of my favourite topics: the master of roster.

Simply put, it is the privilege and the administrative power of the Chief Justice of a court to constitute benches and allocate cases at their absolute discretion is called the ‘master of roster’ system. Experts say that this power is completely opaque, it is arbitrary, and lacks any guidelines to keep a check on the misuse of this discretionary power.

So of course, due to the lack of any transparency, speculations will arise; sometimes there are even genuine concerns about potential government influence whenever bench assignments align with government interests. There is a perception that sometimes, in matters where the government has high political stakes, those matters are carefully assigned by the Chief Justice before those judges who he may perhaps know will grant a judgement one way or the other.

This system is not explicitly laid down in any law or the Constitution but has evolved as a matter of convention and the Supreme Court’s own judgments over the years. You see, someone has to ensure efficient functioning of the court right? The workload management, the expertise of judges in specific areas of law, and balancing the composition of benches to reflect diversity and representation. So who does that today? That burden falls on the Chief Justice of the court.

But like I said, critics argue that the system is susceptible to favouritism, where certain judges or benches are consistently assigned high-profile or politically sensitive cases, leading to perceptions of bias or unfairness. And it’s not just critics. In January 2018, the infamous press conference by the four senior-most judges of the Supreme Court after the Chief Justice conveyed similar concerns. At that time, the concern was that the Chief Justice of India, Dipak Misra, was assigning certain sensitive cases to junior judges with a “political bias”, bypassing them. The judges were concerned that somebody “from the outside” was controlling the Chief Justice.

Now more than six years have passed since that first-ever press conference of sitting Supreme Court judges raising these very serious questions. “All is not well in the Supreme Court” they had said. So how much has the system improved? One can argue that apart from cosmetic changes, not much has improved.

On the contrary, things seem to have taken a new turn, for the worse.

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