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Social media engagement by judges goes against ‘expected’ aloofness

A peek into a judge’s opinions and online interactions with certain individuals may affect the perception of neutrality expected while delivering a verdict.

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Last month I came across a tweet by a colleague asking the question, “whether magistrates/district court judges in India are allowed to have social media accounts?” I found the question interesting. Young judicial magistrates and district court judges in India are increasingly making their presence felt online, quite uncharacteristic of the serious traditional image that is associated with them.

Advocate Abhinav Chandrachud in his book Republic of Rhetoric: Free Speech and the Constitution of India writes that in some high courts, it is informally expected that when a lawyer is elevated to the bench, she/he must delete their social media accounts because judges are not expected to engage with social media.

While this informal rule is largely followed by judges of the Supreme Court and high courts, judicial magistrates seem to ignore it. In a recent report, ThePrint’s Jyoti Yadav wrote that young judges (especially men) are using social media to flaunt and flex bits of their social life. They use social media to give a peek into their private lives and enjoy celebrity-like status.

Although the lack of regulations allows judges to be on social media, the Judicial Code of Conduct indicates that they are expected to maintain a degree of aloofness and not engage in any activity that may be unbecoming of their judicial office.

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Adopt a hermit’s personality

Social media is not a new phenomenon, however, its exponential percolation into every aspect of our lives is. While earlier the platform was used to connect with friends and family, today it is used by many to build an online community and attain influential starlike status. So it’s alright if judges only use social media accounts for the former purpose and not indulge in the latter.

The Supreme Court has described an ideal judge as the one who lives and behaves like a hermit, having no desire or aspiration. The justification behind this life of seclusion is that a judge should not come in contact with people whose rights and liabilities she/he decides. A judge should be unbiased and must decide cases on the principles of law without being influenced by other factors. The judge’s aloofness is concomitant with their independence, as citizens trust them with an impartial adjudication not guided by any bias whatsoever.

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Non-binding but important principles

In 1997, the Supreme Court adopted a document called the Restatement of Values of Judicial Life by a full court reference. The code lays down 16 principles that judges must follow. Although the code is non-enforceable and there is no sanction against a judge for violating it, the top court has termed it illustrative of the judges’ expectations. In fact, the Law Commission recommended in its 195th Report that a violation of the code be termed as an act of misbehaviour. However, no action has been taken on the said recommendation.

Two of the relevant principles from the code read, “A judge should practice a degree of aloofness consistent with the dignity of his office” and “Every judge must at all times be conscious that he is under the public gaze and there should be no act or omission by him which is unbecoming of the high office he occupies and the public esteem in which that office is held.”

These principles apply whenever a judge operates a social media account. When judges make themselves accessible to the public on an unofficial platform, they breach the principle of aloofness expected from their office.

The breach is minimal when a judge is operating a “private account” on social media, i.e., an account where only their approved followers are connected with them and can view their profile, comment, and message them. However, when social media is used as a mode to engage with the public or share the judge’s private life with them, the principle of aloofness is gravely endangered.

There exists a possibility that the judge’s online interactions with certain individuals might bias him/her against the latter. Further, by allowing citizens to engage with their private lives, judges give rise to a chance for conflict. It is a sneak peek into their ideologies, beliefs, and opinions, which may affect the citizen’s perception of neutrality that is expected from judges while rendering their judgments.

Recently, the Kerala High Court took note of this rising use of social media by judges and ordered the creation of a designated Code of Conduct for judicial officers. The Code of Conduct lays down detailed guidelines concerning use of social media by judges.

Two of the guidelines read as follows: “Staff members of the High Court and District Judiciary shall not indulge in any use of social media which causes depletion of work time in the office.” Another one states that “Staff members of the High Court and District Judiciary shall not use social media for any activities which affect the integrity, propriety and discipline of his or her official position.”

Out of the three pillars of governance in India, the two that thrive on popular support are the executive and the legislature. The judiciary is the only one that is expected to lay low and quietly dispense justice. They speak through their judgments and are not supposed to engage with the public like the other two organs. Unfortunately, the rising social media presence of ‘celebrity judges’ is breaking this trend.

Swapnil Tripathi is an advocate based in New Delhi. Views are personal.

(Edited by Tarannum Khan)

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