By Sanjay Kumar
NEW DELHI, Dec 24 – The Calcutta High Court while hearing a matter found the counsel for the petitioner requesting the presiding Judge Justice Protik Prakash Banerjee to recuse himself from the hearing because he was a Facebook friend of the appearing counsel.
Although Justice Protik Prakash politely obliged, the plea raises a pertinent question — whether friendship between a Judge and a lawyer on a social media platform is a ground for the Judge’s recusal as per the law in India.
The present Chief Justice of India (CJI) NV Ramana had recently appealed for saving the judiciary from motivated and targeted attacks on social media. Speaking at the constitution day celebration organized by the Supreme Court Bar Association (SCBA) he had said that the onus lies on the central agencies to deal with the synchronized, sponsored attacks against judges on social media.
Similar concerns were raised by the then Union Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad who had said that comments against judges are a ‘disturbing new trend’. The then Union Law Minister was referring to what he termed as ‘grossly unfair’ comments on social media against judges by those who file PILs and feel aggrieved when the judgment is not favorable.
Speaking on the issue, M. A. Niyazi, Litigation lawyer based in Delhi High Court said, “A judge may choose to use social media platforms as they also have right to associate with their friends and family, but in doing so he or she must not leave the values of judicial life provided under code of canons of judicial ethics. A Judge should practice a degree of aloofness consistent with the dignity of his or her office. A Judge should not enter into public debate or express his views in public on political matters or on matters that are pending or are likely to arise for judicial determination. He or she should also not associate himself or herself with any kind of promotion of any brand by liking or sharing any such pages on such platforms.”
The question is particularly pertinent in the light of the present trend when social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram etc. have revolutionized the way Indians share information and take decisions. The opportunity for constant participation in conversations on issues of national importance has impacted almost every sphere of life, and the judicial and legal professions are by no means exempt from such developments.
Fifty-eight percent of the world’s population is on social media spending an average of 2 hours and 27 minutes on these platforms. Indians spend an average of 2.25 hours on social media daily. The number of internet users in India is roughly 45% of the total population. Social media has become one of the most essential parts of daily internet usage in India.
Sandip Kumar, advocate, Delhi High Court feels that judges should desist from social media. “To maintain absolute impartiality while sitting in judgment over public issues, the judges should not themselves be seen as supportive or critical of a particular opinion. Hence, they should stay away from social media,” he said.
However, Santosh Mishra, a practicing lawyer at Delhi’s Tis Hazari court has a different take. He said, “Why not, but they have to be cautious and use it judiciously.”
Legal professionals — judges, advocates as well as judicial staff — are flocking to social media sites to enhance their professional presence in the emerging digital world. Although judges have been slower than the general public to embrace such platforms, however, surveys report that the number of users from the judiciary has been increasing. Justice (retd.) Markandey Katju has over 1 lakh followers on Twitter and almost 11,000 tweets.
Commenting on the issue a senior judicial officer, who preferred not to be named, said,” It is true that judicial officers have certain restrictions in the public life. As far ethics goes they should not participate in any public function and should not be part of any front or party.”
“The Judges also have a common and fundamental right to express their views, however, the chairs they adorn carry an imperative that they should be free from biases and prejudices,” says Ujjwal K Jha, Managing Partner, Legal Tryst practicing in Supreme Court and Delhi High Court.
Doha declaration of the United Nations says that social media plays a vital part in social life, communication, and dissemination of information. They inevitably touch upon the lives of most people, with judges being no exception. However, given the nature of the judicial office, the use of social media by judges raises specific questions that should be addressed. This is because the way judges use social media may have an impact on the public perception of judges and confidence in the judicial systems and can potentially lead to situations where judges are seen as biased or subject to outside influences.
In addition, the use of social media also poses potential threats to judges’ privacy, safety and may place judges under the attack of negative comments and cyberbullying.
“As an ordinary person, a judge can and should use such platforms as this is a basic human need in modern times but should not use as a platform to voice their views as judges and also not be influenced by it as then how can they maintain their integrity.
“Judges have to act according to law and the evidence produced before them. Though they enjoy wide discretionary powers it should be strictly judicial discretion and not guided by popular sentiments. Without testing the veracity of any issue, judges don’t have to jump to any conclusions and they are expected to give a patient hearing to both the parties,” says Utpal Kumar, a practicing lawyer at the Bhagalpur district court in Bihar.
“Issues in social media platforms are mostly views of people which are usually not backed by facts. Though Judges can give their personal view as ordinary citizens only. They should not be allowed to disclose their identities while giving opinions,” adds Kumar.
In line with the Bangalore Principles of Judicial Conduct, judges should in all their actions have regard to the values of independence, impartiality, integrity, and propriety, but at the same time should not be isolated from society and should strive to create an environment of open justice. How to find a balance between these competing priorities in the ever-evolving world of technological advancements and communication is the biggest challenge.