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Contempt notice to transparency lawyer

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By OUR LEGAL CORRESPONDENT in Delhi
  • Published 6.11.09
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New Delhi, Nov. 6: The Supreme Court today issued a contempt notice to activist-lawyer Prashant Bhushan for remarks accusing a judge of ignoring a potential conflict of interests and awarding mining leases to a company in which he held shares.

Justice S.H. Kapadia, next in line to be Chief Justice of India (CJI), had awarded leases to Sterlite India Private Limited. He had revealed he held some Sterlite shares and offered to recuse himself from the case, but continued hearing the case since no party objected to that.

Bhushan said the notice to him would only “bring the issue of corruption in the judiciary and outdated contempt laws into focus”.

The son of former law minister Shanti Bhushan has been at the forefront of a movement seeking greater transparency and accountability among the judiciary, which recently led to apex court judges putting their assets declarations in the public domain for the first time.

Bhushan had told a Delhi-based weekly in an interview that judicial corruption manifested itself in several ways and cited Justice Kapadia’s case as an example.

“There is a law against judges hearing cases where there is a conflict of interests, but they just bypass it and you can’t complain because that would be contempt,” he had said.

In another context, he said at least half the past CJIs were corrupt — a remark the contempt notice mentions — though he admitted he did not have evidence to back all his claims.

Bhushan and his father are now defending the editor, resident editor, publisher and cartoonist of a newspaper against contempt charges for publishing a caricature of former CJI Y.K. Sabharwal.

Justice Kapadia was part of the forest bench which had in August 2008 refused bauxite mining leases to London-based Vedanta Alumina Limited on the ground that it was unlisted in India. The bench had awarded the leases to Sterlite, in which Vedanta holds an 80 per cent stake.

Although the parties in the case did not object to Justice Kapadia being on the bench, activists opposing mining in Orissa’s Niyamgiri hills had argued that the real stakeholders — the organisations opposed to the Vedanta project — were not con- sulted.

Today, amicus curiae Harish N. Salve said Bhushan’s remarks were an “attack on the integrity” of the court.

According to Clause 11 of the Restatement of Judicial Values, adopted by Supreme Court judges in 1997, no judge shall “hear and decide a matter in which a company in which he holds shares is concerned unless he has disclosed his interest and no objection to his hearing and deciding the matter is raised”.