The position of the Chief Justice of a High Court was elucidated in a judgment of a three judge Bench of this Court in State of Rajasthan v Prakash Chand. During the course of the judgment the following broad conclusions were formulated in regard to the position of the Chief Justice:
“(1) That the administrative control of the High Court vests in the Chief Justice alone. On the judicial side, however, he is only the first amongst the equals.
(2) That the Chief Justice is the Master of the Roster. He alone has the prerogative to constitute Benches of the court and allocate cases to the Benches so constituted.
(3) That the puisne Judges can only do that work as is allotted to them by the Chief Justice or under his directions.
(4) That till any determination made by the Chief Justice lasts, no Judge who is to sit singly can sit in a Division Bench and no Division Bench can be split up by the Judges constituting the Bench themselves and one or both the Judges constituting such Bench sit singly and take up any other kind of judicial business not otherwise assigned to them by or under the directions of the Chief Justice.
(5) That the Chief Justice can take congnizance of an application laid before him under Rule 55 (supra) and refer a case to the larger bench for its disposal and he can exercise this jurisdiction even in relation to a part-heard case.
(6) That the puisne Judges cannot “pick and choose” any case pending in the High Court and assign the same to himself or themselves for disposal without appropriate orders of the Chief Justice.
(7) That no Judge or Judges can give directions to the Registry for listing any case before him or them which runs counter to the directions given by the Chief Justice. “
Recently, a Constitution Bench of Supreme Court in Campaign for Judicial Accountability and Reforms v Union of India held that the principle which was noticed and recognised in the decision of this court in Prakash Chand (supra) in relation to the jurisdiction and authority of the Chief Justice of the High Court “must apply proprio vigore as regards the power of the Chief Justice of India”.
The position of the Chief Justice was reiterated with the following observations:
“The aforesaid position though stated as regards the High Court, we are absolutely certain that the said principle is applicable to the Supreme Court. We are disposed to think so. Unless such a position is clearly stated, there will be utter confusion. Be it noted, this has been also the convention of this Court, and the convention has been so because of the law. We have to make it clear without any kind of hesitation that the convention is followed because of the principles of law and because of judicial discipline and decorum. Once the Chief Justice is stated to be the Master of the Roster, he alone has the prerogative to constitute Benches. Needless to say, neither a two-Judge Bench nor a three-Judge Bench can allocate the matter to themselves or direct the composition for constitution of a Bench.
To elaborate, there cannot be any direction to the Chief Justice of India as to who shall be sitting on the Bench or who shall take up the matter as that touches the composition of the Bench. We reiterate such an order cannot be passed. It is not countenanced in law and not permissible. An institution has to function within certain parameters and that is why there are precedents, rules and conventions. As far as the composition of Benches is concerned, we accept the principles stated in Prakash Chand [State of Rajasthan v. Prakash Chand, (1998) 1 SCC 1] , which were stated in the context of the High Court, and clearly state that the same shall squarely apply to the Supreme Court and there cannot be any kind of command or order directing the Chief Justice of India to constitute a particular Bench.”
Chief justice is the Master of Roster
The Chartered High Courts of Allahabad, Bombay, Calcutta and Madras have a long history of over a hundred and fifty years. Each of them has marked its sesquicentennial. Many High Courts are not far behind in vintage. Some are of a recent origin. Over the course of their judicial history, High Courts have evolved conventions in matters governing practice and procedure. These conventions provide guidance to the Chief Justice in the allocation of work, including in the constitution of benches. The High Courts periodically publish a roster of work under the authority of the Chief Justice. The roster indicates the constitution of Benches, Division and Single.
The roster will indicate the subject matter of the cases assigned to each bench. Different High Courts have their own traditions in regard to the period for which the published roster will continue, until a fresh roster is notified. Individual judges have their own strengths in terms of specialisation. The Chief Justice of the High Court has to bear in mind the area of specialisation of each judge, while deciding upon the allocation of work. However, specialisation is one of several aspects which weigh with the Chief Justice. A newly appointed judge may be rotated in a variety of assignments to enable the judge to acquire expertise in diverse branches of law. Together with the need for specialisation, there is a need for judges to have a broad-based understanding of diverse areas of law. In deciding upon the allocation of work and the constitution of benches, Chief Justices have to determine the number of benches which need to be assigned to a particular subject matter keeping in view the inflow of work and arrears.
The Chief Justice of the High Court will have regard to factors such as the pendency of cases in a given area, the need to dispose of the oldest cases, prioritising criminal cases where the liberty of the subject is involved and the overall strength, in terms of numbers, of the court. Different High Courts have assigned priorities to certain categories of cases such as those involving senior citizens, convicts who are in jail and women litigants. These priorities are considered while preparing the roster. Impending retirements have to be borne in mind since the assignment given to a judge who is due to demit office would have to be entrusted to another Bench when the vacancy arises. These are some of the considerations which are borne in mind. The Chief Justice is guided by the need to ensure the orderly functioning of the court and the expeditious disposal of cases.
The publication of the roster on the websites of the High Courts provides notice to litigants and lawyers about the distribution of judicial work under the authority of the Chief Justice. This Court was constituted in 1950. In the preparation of the roster and in the distribution of judicial work, some of the conventions which are adopted in the High Courts are also relevant, subject to modifications having regard to institutional requirements.[ Asok Pande Vs. Supreme Court of India through its Registrar and Ors. in Writ Petition (Civil) No 147 of 2018]