Forgotten cogs in the wheels of justice – Prashant Bhushan & Cheryl Dsouza
The exploitation of judicial support staff continues to be widespread
The lower cadre of employees working in subordinate courts across the country have aired grievances from time to time which are related to the terms of their employment and deplorable conditions of work.
These employees form the backbone of the justice delivery system, yet the problems they face — primarily related to administration — have led them to raise their voices, often to no avail. While a litigant can approach a court to access justice, these court employees lack an efficient grievance redress mechanism, with none or a rare personal hearing given to them by their senior judicial officers. Written complaints are put aside and the injustices meted out to them often go unreported. If they raise a voice against this victimisation, it has resulted in notices being issued to them, adverse annual confidential reports, fines, transfers out of the district, departmental inquiries or even suspension.
Reports about the harassment of court employees have been appearing in the media for instance, on the representations sent to the chief justices of High Courts about judges allegedly misusing their powers and harassing lower court staff or of court employees protesting against judges for allegedly making them work in their houses.
The Campaign for Judicial Accountability and Reforms (CJAR) made a representation to the Chief Justice of the Punjab and Haryana High Court, detailing cases where employees had alleged harassment by the misuse of rules that regulate their service and the various issues that needed to be addressed. The main issues raised in this representation concerned the condition of subordinate court staff who are allegedly being made to work as personal servants in the houses of judges and the provision of home peons which has not been implemented. The complaint drew attention to a letter in 1973, from the Chief Secretary, Government of Punjab to all judges in the State, issuing instructions against the use of government employees for private work: “In cases where private work is taken from a government employee as a regular whole time domestic servant, without his consent and payment, it should be considered to be a case of serious nature involving wilful dishonesty and dealt with accordingly.” This and other orders on the appointment of home peons have not been acted upon till recently.
The important function played by judicial support staff in keeping the judicial machinery afloat cannot be undermined. Yet these employees have been driven to all forms of protest on how unjustly they are positioned in a system, which far from catering to their welfare needs, unjustly subjugates them with the burden of court work. They work in repressive conditions with long hours, have no leave, face penalties and fines and often unfair arrest warrants, and are overburdened by the sheer volume of file handling and working out of crowded courtrooms. Mounting pendency of court cases results in an increased volume of court files without an increase in judicial staff strength, leading to them being overburdened. Proper care has not been taken to ensure the appointment of qualified staff. Those who are recruited have little or no on-the-job training.
Successive Law Commissions have made suggestions for employee reforms, but little has been done to implement them. The judiciary is uniquely positioned to implement these recommendations through administrative orders. With suggestions on how to enhance ‘quality, responsiveness and timeliness of courts’, we cannot allow this burden to be borne by the lowest employee. Along with clearly defined recruitment rules, transfer policies and training guidelines need to be put in place and adhered to. The importance of an effective grievance redress mechanism for this cadre cannot be stressed enough.
Acting on the CJAR representation, the Chief Justice of the Punjab and Haryana High Court has made the first move in directing that all judicial officers in the State appoint home peons by June 30. Further, the order directs that an employee’s post be changed every three years and file handling by ahlmads be limited to 800 files. This will go a long way in ensuring a more fulfilling and just working environment. This needs to be emulated by other High Courts as well if this widespread and systematic exploitation has to be halted and to boost the morale of this workforce, in the larger interests of justice and equity.
Prashant Bhushan is a Public Interest Advocate and Convenor, Campaign for Judicial Accountability and Reforms, Cheryl Dsouza is an advocate and Secretary, Campaign for Judicial Accountability and Reforms