by Our Legal Affairs Correspondent
“The role of a judge is not to legislate from the bench or to impose personal views on the law. Rather, it is to interpret the law as it is written and to apply it fairly and impartially to the facts of the case at hand.” – Chief Justice John Roberts
The principle that all individuals are equal before the law is a fundamental tenet of modern democracies. It means that no one, no matter their status or position, is above the law. However, when it comes to judges, this principle seems to be put to the test. Who judges the judges? Can they be held accountable like everyone else?
Judges play a crucial role in upholding the rule of law, interpreting the law, and settling disputes. They are expected to be impartial, fair, and knowledgeable about the law. However, they are not infallible. They can make mistakes, have biases, or act in bad faith. When this happens, it is essential to have a system in place to hold them accountable.
One of the primary mechanisms to ensure judicial accountability is the disciplinary system. In most countries, judges are subject to disciplinary proceedings if they engage in misconduct or violate ethical standards. These proceedings are usually conducted by a body composed of judges, lawyers, and other professionals, tasked with investigating complaints and imposing sanctions if necessary.
However, the disciplinary system is not without its flaws. First, it can be slow, opaque, and inconsistent. Disciplinary proceedings can take years to conclude, during which time a judge may continue to sit on the bench, potentially making further errors. The process can also be secretive, with little information available to the public, making it difficult to assess the system’s effectiveness. Moreover, the severity of the sanctions imposed can vary widely depending on the case, leading to perceptions of bias or favouritism.
Another challenge to holding judges accountable is the doctrine of judicial immunity. This doctrine provides judges with legal protection from being sued or prosecuted for actions taken in the course of their duties. It is based on the idea that judges need to be able to make decisions without fear of retribution or harassment. However, it can also create a sense of impunity, leading some judges to act recklessly or abuse their power.
The paradox of the equality of all before the law is perhaps most evident in cases where judges are accused of misconduct but are not held accountable. This can lead to a sense of injustice and erode public trust in the justice system. It is essential to have a system in place that can address these concerns, ensuring that judges are held accountable while also protecting their independence.
Like many other countries, in Sri Lanka, judges are expected to play a vital role in upholding the rule of law and ensuring access to justice for all citizens. The country’s judiciary is independent, with the Constitution providing for the separation of powers between the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government.
The primary responsibilities of judges in Sri Lanka include interpreting the law, resolving disputes, and ensuring that all individuals are equal before the law. Judges are expected to be impartial, fair, and knowledgeable about the law. They are also required to act in accordance with the principles of natural justice and human rights.
As guardians of the law, judges hold a critical position in society. One of their primary responsibilities is to ensure that justice is done in accordance with the law. However, in many cases, the actions of judges can have broader implications for the country as a whole. For this reason, judges must take into account the national interest of their respective country when making decisions.
The national interest is a broad and somewhat nebulous concept, but it generally refers to the wellbeing and security of a country and its citizens. Judges must consider the national interest in their decision-making process, as their actions can have far-reaching consequences for the country. For example, a judge may need to consider the national interest when deciding on a case that involves national security, such as a case involving terrorism or espionage. In such cases, the judge must balance the need for security with the rights of the accused and the principles of justice.
In addition to national security concerns, judges must also consider the impact of their decisions on the country’s economy, social cohesion, and international reputation. For example, a judge may need to consider the impact of a decision on foreign investment, trade relations, or the country’s standing in international organizations.
However, it is important to note that judges must also maintain their independence and impartiality, and their primary focus should be on interpreting and applying the law. The national interest should not be used as a cover for political interference or the pursuit of narrow interests. Rather, judges should consider the national interest as part of a broader set of factors that are relevant to their decision-making process.
The question of who judges the judges is a complex one, with no easy answers. Ensuring judicial accountability is vital to upholding the rule of law and maintaining public trust in the justice system. However, achieving this goal requires a transparent, consistent, and fair system of discipline, as well as a re-examination of the doctrine of judicial immunity. Ultimately, it is up to society to hold its judges accountable, to ensure that they act in the best interest of justice and the common good.
As one of the former Associate Justices of the Supreme Court of the United States says, “the role of the judge is to interpret the law and administer justice without fear or favour, always mindful of the national interest and the rights of individuals.”