New Delhi : The Supreme Court Wednesday cautioned courts against “routinely” summoning or “humiliating” government officials, laying down an elaborate set of guidelines that underlined the need to cultivate an “environment of respect”.
The standard operating procedures (SOPs), drawn up by a three-judge bench presided by Chief Justice of India D Y Chandrachud, were necessitated by an April 2023 Allahabad High Court order under which senior Uttar Pradesh government officials were taken into custody and faced bailable warrants — all over the notification of rules on domestic helps for former high court judges.
The top court, while pulling up the Allahabad High Court over the issue, said in the guidelines that courts should refrain from passing remarks that can humiliate government officials or making comments on their clothes, appearance, education or social standing.
The bench, also comprising Justices J B Pardiwala and Manoj Misra, said the physical presence of officials may be required in proceedings involving evidence such as documents or oral statements. Except in these cases, “if the issues can be addressed through affidavits and other documents, physical presence may not be necessary and should not be directed as a routine measure,” said the SOP.
It said that presence of a government official may be directed in cases where the court is satisfied that specific information is not being provided or if the correct position is being suppressed or misrepresented.
The SC said that “in exceptional cases wherein the in-person appearance of a government official is called for… the court should allow as a first option, the officer to appear before it through video conferencing” and that when personal presence is directed, reasons for the same should be recorded. The official concerned should be given due notice so that he has sufficient time to prepare, the bench said adding courts should, to the extent possible, also designate a specific time slot for the appearance. “Government officials participating in the proceedings need not stand throughout the hearing. Standing should be required only when the official is responding to or making statements in court”, said the SOP.
The SOP stated: “Courts must cultivate an environment of respect and professionalism. Comments on the dress of the official appearing before the court should be avoided unless there is a violation of the specified dress code applicable to their office”.
Among others, the SOP also calls upon courts to exercise caution and restraint when initiating contempt proceedings against government officials. In the Uttar Pradesh matter last year, the Finance Secretary and Finance Special Secretary were taken into custody and bailable warrants were issued against the Chief Secretary and the Additional Chief Secretary (Finance). This was over non-compliance with the Allahabad High Court’s April 4 direction to the state government to notify rules proposed by the Chief Justice on ‘Domestic Help to Former Chief Justices and Former Judges of the Allahabad High Court’.
The state government moved an application before the court seeking the rollback of the April 4 order. It highlighted legal obstacles in complying with the directions, but the HC went ahead with the action against the officials. Deciding on the state’s plea against this, the top court made it clear that the high court did not have the power to direct the state government to notify the rules.
“The Chief Justice did not have the competence to frame the rules under Article 229 of the Constitution. Further, the High Court, acting on the judicial side, does not have the power to direct the Government to frame rules proposed by it on the administrative side”
Disapproving of the “conduct” of the High Court in “frequently summoning” officials of the Uttar Pradesh government, the SC said: “Appearance of government officials before courts must not be reduced to a routine measure in cases where the government is a party and can only be resorted to in limited circumstances. The use of the power to summon the presence of government officials must not be used as a tool to pressurize the government, particularly, under the threat of contempt”.
It said: “The issuance of bailable warrants by the High Court against officials, including the Chief Secretary, who was not even summoned in the first place, further indicates the attempt by the High Court to unduly pressurize the government” and “runs contrary to the scheme envisaged by the Constitution”.
Sounding a note of caution, the SC said: “Courts must refrain from summoning officials as the first resort. While the actions and decisions of public officials are subject to judicial review, summoning officials frequently without just cause is not permissible… Courts across the country must foster an environment of respect and professionalism…”.