The recent order by the Himachal Pradesh High Court replacing the term “subordinate courts” with “district judiciary” is a welcome move towards undoing the feudal underpinnings in the Indian judicial system. For too long, the Constitution’s terminology has perpetuated a master-servant dynamic between the higher and lower judiciary, undermining the latter’s independence and dignity.

As Professor Upendra Baxi rightly argues, no judge should be considered “subordinate” or “inferior” to another. While jurisdictions may differ, each judge is supreme within their own domain. The constitutional provisions referring to “subordinate courts” and judicial posts “inferior to a district judge” need to be rectified urgently.

Simply changing nomenclature is not enough, however. A more comprehensive overhaul of Article 235 is required to strip the high courts of their quasi-feudal “control” over district judiciaries. The high courts can retain supervisory powers, but these must be guided by clearly defined performance metrics rather than arbitrary diktats.

Moreover, the existing system of writing annual confidential reports (ACRs) for district judges is riddled with inconsistencies and susceptible to bias. Judges with consistently “very good” ACRs have been summarily downgraded to “good” without any reasoned justification. Any adverse remarks must mandatorily involve a collegiate decision by the senior-most judges to prevent such injustice.

To dismantle judicial feudalism, the principles governing judicial appointments and elevations also require an overhaul. The recent suggestion by Chief Justice N.V. Ramana to consider Supreme Court lawyers for elevation to high courts is commendable. However, such a process needs to be constitutionally codified based on the recommendations of the Chief Justices’ Conference.

The Conference’s proposals on ending feudalism should carry significant weight and be assured smooth parliamentary passage. After all, an independent judiciary free from internal hierarchies is a vital component of India’s basic constitutional structure.

Specific steps could include:

1) Amending Article 235 to replace “control” with “administrative supervision” and lay down precise guardrails.

2) Instituting a standardized, transparent mechanism for writing ACRs involving judges from across levels. 

3) Establishing constitutional benches in high courts with substantial participation of senior district judges for judicial administrative decisions.

4) Enacting a new constitutional provision codifying the procedure and substantive criteria for appointing judges across levels, as recommended by the judicial branch.

The idea that some constitutional courts are “subordinate” to others is antithetical to judicial independence and fairness. Just as the Supreme Court and high courts are considered equal constitutional courts, so must the district judiciary be freed from feudal shackles.

Backed by constitutional amendments, the district judiciary can finally shed inequitable labels and emerge as an empowered, indispensable tier in ensuring access to justice for all citizens. Undoing judicial feudalism is a crucial step in making the legal system truly democratic and accountable.

Contributed by-

Saachi Minocha

National Law University, Jodhpur (2023-28)

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