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People with half-truths using social media to scrutinise judicial process, says SC judge

Attacks can force judges to give more attention to what media thinks rather than what law mandates and harm judicial institution, says Justice Pardiwala

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New Delhi: Supreme Court judge Justice J. B. Pardiwala Sunday called for the regulation of digital and social media which was being used to express “personalised opinions” against the judiciary and thereby lead to a “dangerous scenario”.

In his address on the topic ‘Vox Populi versus the Rule of Law: Supreme Court of India’ at the second Justice HR Khanna Memorial National Symposium, Justice Pardiwala said Parliament just dwells upon introducing appropriate legislative and regulatory provisions, more importantly in the context of cases that are sub-judice.

This, he emphasised, was to preserve the “rule of law” underlined in the Constitution.

Justice Pardiwala was elevated to the Supreme Court in May by superseding scores of other high court judges. Ranked 49th in All India seniority, Justice Pardiwala will become the Chief Justice of India in May 2028 and will remain in office for two years, three months and eight days.

Social media is being used by those who “possess only the half-truth” to “express personalised opinions, more against the judges, rather than a constructive critical appraisal of their judgements,” the SC judge said. This trend, he added, is “harming the judicial institution and lowering its dignity.”

His statement comes two days after a Supreme Court bench rejected former BJP spokesperson Nupur Sharma’s petition to club multiple criminal cases registered against her for the “disparaging remarks” on Prophet Mohammad and transfer it to the Delhi Police for investigation.

The bench comprising Justices Pardiwala and Justice Surya Kanthad orally taken a grim view over Sharma’s “irresponsible statement” and blamed her for the Udaipur killing. The observations had triggered massive outrage over the social media with many Right-wing supporters condemning the judges for the decision and their observations.

In India, which still cannot be classified as a completely mature and informed democracy, social digital media is employed frequently to politicise purely legal and constitutional issues, the judge lamented.

He gave the example of the Ayodhya verdict, which was essentially a land and a title dispute, and how it attained political overtones by the time the final verdict was pronounced in 2019.

The SC judge referred to the “imputations” and “motives” that were made towards the judges who authored the verdict, saying people conveniently forgot that “someday or the other some judge had to decide the contentious civil dispute which was indisputably one of the oldest litigations pending in the country running into more than 38,000 odd pages.”

Also Read: ‘Social media, not big press, is where democracy will continue to thrive’, says ACJ chair

‘Lakshman Rekha crossed many times’

Regarding the role of the media, the SC judge said a trial is essentially a process to be caried out by the court. “However, in the modern-day context, trials by digital media are an undue interference in the process of justice dispensation.”

This “crossing of Lakshman Rekha many a times” is “worrisome,” especially when people possessing half-truth use social media to scrutinise the judicial process, he said.

The “concepts of judicial discipline, binding precedents and inherent limitations of judicial discretion” were “elusive” for such people, but they were the real challenge to the “dispensation of justice through the rule of law”, he asserted.

“Social and digital media is, nowadays, primarily resorted to expressing personalised opinions, more against the judges per say, rather than a constructive critical appraisal of their judgements, this is what is harming the judicial institution and lowering its dignity.”

As for the constitutional courts, he said, they have “always graciously accepted informed dissents and constructive criticisms,” but have always “debarred a personalised agenda driven attacks of the judges.”

And, this, according to Justice Pardiwala, is where “the digital and social media needs to be mandatory regulated in the country.”

Attacks attempted at judges for judgements lead to a dangerous scenario where judges would pay greater attention to what media thinks rather than the law actually mandates, and this pushes the “rule of law on the burner, ignoring the sanctity of respect for the courts”, he added.

Giving the example of the Sahara case where the Supreme Court laid down guidelines for media reporting of sub-judice cases, he said, it devised the “doctrine of postponement of public issue” as a precautionary measure where the media is not allowed to publish opinions about a sub-judice matter till hearing concludes.

This doctrine of postponement, as per the judge, is not to be read as a sensation or a prior restraint but rather a safeguard against possible abuse. To follow this doctrine can be a viable option, considering how non-judicial factors are shaping the public opinion, he said.

Justice Pardiwala asserted a judicial verdict, right or wrong, is always by a court vested with powers under the Constitution.

The remedy for each judicial order or a judgement is “clearly not available before the digital or social media but a superior court of law in the judicial hierarchy”, he said.

According to him, the trend developing on social media is likely to leave the judges a bit shaken, which is antithetical to the rule of law and not healthy.

“Another issue which has been a hot cake for the digital and social media is punishment in cases of serious cases,” he pointed out.

The immense power of these platforms is persistently resorted to for precipitating a perception of guilt or innocence of the accused even before the trial is over, he said. “This is also sacrilege to the rule of law, especially in high-profile matters where either the incident is hyped or the accused is a big man.”

“Even before the trial is over, society starts believing that the outcome of judicial proceedings ought to be nothing except conviction with extreme penalty for the accused,” he remarked.

Justice Pardiwala quoted two international studies — the Madrid principles of 1994 and a 2011 report by the International Bar Association — that have suggested ways and measures for handling the perpetuate problem of media trial.

The suggested restrictions on the media should be authorised by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, he said, reading from the Madrid Principles.

Judges, he added, cannot speak through their tongue but only through their judgements. However, he concluded, “Judiciary cannot exist independent of the society and the interaction is inevitable but the rule of law is insurmountable.

(Edited by Tony Rai)

Also Read: Panel for appeals & deadline to remove content — govt proposes tweaks to close ‘gaps’ in IT rules


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