Monday, April 07, 2008

Supreme Court's PRO: Is it constitutional?

Dr.Rajeev Dhavan has raised an important issue in today's Mail Today on the constitutionality of Supreme Court's PRO. Citing from the website of the Supreme Court, he asks whether it is Constitutional. Rajeev Dhavan's article cites from the website as follows: The PRO of the Court has been nominated to "respond to enquiries, assist litigants and public, advocates and media persons and provide information to them."
The Supreme Court's Court News October-December 2007 says: "With a view to give more information and bring more transparency in its functioning, SC has for the first time nominated a PRO to attend to enquiries and provide information to litigants, advocates and the media. The PRO so nominated will also guide and assist the advocates and litigants and look into grievances of media persons."

Dr. Dhavan asks: "Is his (PRO's) role to explain the judgments of the Court and tackle the controversies raised by them?"

The Court News makes no such claims. In fact, the actual words used in the Court News as carried in the website, makes the objective of nominating the PRO very clear: one is to give more "information", and another is to bring more transparency in its "functioning". Obviously, the PRO cannot interpret the Judgments for the sake of the media. A PRO, if he is equipped with all the relevant facts regarding the functioning of the Court, can bring down the number of applications under the RTI, which I understand, consume a lot of time of the Court officials these days. The PRO can also think of putting on the website, all the previous replies given to earlier applicants under the RTI, so that it can avoid repetitive questions from other applicants, seeking same answers.

The facilities provided for the litigants and the media persons at the Supreme Court are very limited, and there is indeed scope for improvement. It is possible to suggest that there may be grievances which need to be redressed by a PRO. A judgment can be differently interpreted by various media persons. An observation by a Judge in a Court may be differently reported in sections of the media. There can be no quarrels with that. The PRO can bring to the notice of the Judge, if there are queries from the media, regarding his observations or Judgments, and get back to the media, if the Judge concerned offers any clarifications. Dr.Dhavan agrees that it is never too late to repent, but such repentance -whether by explanation or recantation - must come from the Judge. The PRO can facilitate this repentance/recantation by the Judge, by bringing to his notice the queries/concerns of the media.

Indeed, at the recently held workshop for journalists, Mr.K.K.Venugopal, senior advocate brought to the attention of the participants the institution of similar Press Officer/PRO at the Israeli Supreme Court, which he visited recently.

Dr.Dhavan's concern appears to be that the Supreme Court does not enter the arena of publicity and counter publicity, and invite controversies. He concludes that a transparent Judiciary is a must, and this is best done by its Judges, not a PRO who has no power and ambivalent responsibility. A PRO, by definition, need not have any power or responsibility. On the contrary, the 'P' and 'R' in PRO stand for 'performance' and 'reporting'. Let him perform the function of providing information, and report back and forth between the Judges and the media on mutual issues of concern to achieve the goal of transparent Judiciary. There can be genuine doubts about interpreting a Judgment.

It is all right to say Judgments speak for themselves. There may be a factual error in the Judgments, and the media may be in difficulty in interpreting/reporting. It happened once during the hearing in the Ayodhya case. Justice Kirpal had to correct himself, the following day, after an expose in Indian Express. Dhavan asks: "Is it not better for the Judges to restrain themselves in court and in their judgments rather than go through an elaborate procedure of explanations, further explanations, and counter explanations?"

I see a curious paradox. Even as the senior advocates want the Judges to be restrained in their observations during their hearing, the Judges want to be unrestrained, as for them, an observation/question is a useful strategy to probe the minds of advocates, and elicit answers, which would ultimately help them to write better judgments. The Judges, on the contrary, would like the media to properly report such observations, and when in doubt, approach the PRO.

I think we must give the institution of PRO a try, before giving sustenance to unsubstantiated misgivings. The PRO may not be able to clear all doubts of a journalist regarding a judgment or an observation. It is not required also, as the journalist must be free to interpret what he finds, provided he understands the context. But the journalist must have the option of approaching the PRO, and explore whether this interface helps if he wants to understand the Court's processes.

UPDATE: My enquiries with the present PRO of the Supreme Court reveals that he does not interpret Judgments, but only helps Journalists in getting copies of judgments, orders, and other such requirements. In fact, he pleaded his helplessness, when I asked him for a copy of the latest annual report of the Supreme Court, saying I must download it from the internet.
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