Why Do Judges Recuse Themselves?

Why Do Judges Recuse Themselves?

Why Do Judges Recuse Themselves?


  • A judge can step down from a case where there is a potential conflict of interest in order to avoid the appearance of prejudice in the decision-making process. Recusals can be automatic, in which case the judge withdraws from the case, or they can be requested by a party who raises concerns about the judge’s potential prejudice or conflict of interest.
  • No party can force a judge to disqualify themselves from a case; that choice is totally up to the judge’s conscience and judgement. The process is frequently left up to the judges themselves to record the reasons for recusals because there are no statutory regulations guiding it.
  • According to a recent decision by the Delhi High Court, no litigant or third party has the right to remark on, ask about, or intervene in a judge’s decision to recuse themselves from a case.

Why do judges recuse?

  • Conflict of interest: Judges are required to make impartial decisions without bias. To avoid the impression of prejudice or improper behaviour, judges who have a financial or personal stake in the result of a case may choose to disqualify themselves. For instance, it would be viewed as a conflict of interest if a judge owned stock in a business that was a party to the case.
  • Prior involvement: Judges who have previously been involved in a case or who personally know one or more of the parties may choose to recuse themselves in order to guarantee that they treat the issue objectively. This might happen if the judge has a personal connection to one of the parties or has previously represented or counselled one of the parties.
  • Prejudice: In order to respect the ideal of impartiality, a judge may recuse oneself if they have voiced or shown bias or prejudgment towards the issues or parties in a case. Judges are supposed to make judgements based purely on the facts and defences made in court.
  • Appearance of Bias: Even if a judge is confident in their ability to be objective, they may step aside if there is a plausible suspicion or appearance of prejudice. This guarantees that justice is not only carried out but also seen to be carried out, helping to retain the public’s faith in the judicial system.
  • Legal or Ethical Obligation: Judges may recuse themselves if there is a legal or ethical requirement for them to do so. This can apply to cases when specific statutory requirements or court regulations compel recusal.

What is the procedure for recusal?

  • There are two different types of recusals: In India, there are two categories of recusals:
    • Automatic recusal: In this scenario, a judge leaves a case voluntarily without any party asking for it. If the judge sees a conflict of interest or anything else that would make them lose their objectivity, they may act accordingly.
    • b. Recusal upon plea: A party to the dispute may make a case for the judge’s recusal by arguing that the judge may be biased or have a personal stake in the outcome. The judge is asked to step down from the case in this plea.
  • The decision rests with the judge: Judge discretion and conscience are the only factors that should be considered while making a decision. A judge cannot be forced to leave a case by any party. Judges have the option to recuse themselves even if they do not personally perceive a conflict of interest, but they also have the option to forego doing so if they feel there is no good cause to do so.
  • Examples of recusals and refusals: In certain cases, judges in India have chosen to withdraw from a case even though they do not see a conflict of interest because of concerns expressed by a party. However, there have also been occasions where judges have resisted such requests and remained impartial. For instance, Ranjan Gogoi, who was India’s Chief Justice at the time, was asked to withdraw from a lawsuit involving detainees from Assam’s detention facilities in 2019. He declined nevertheless, saying that the plea may jeopardise the institution.
  • Role of Chief Justice: The matter is normally listed before the Chief Justice in the event that a judge recuses himself from a case. The matter is then assigned to a different bench for further proceedings by the Chief Justice. When recusals have a place, the Chief Justice is crucial in the reassignment of cases.
  • Absence of codified regulations: The procedure for recusals is not governed by any specific codified regulations or laws in India. Instead, the Supreme Court of India has addressed the subject of recusal in a number of decisions. These rulings offer guidance on the situations in which a judge should step aside and the variables to take into account when doing so.

Do judges have to record a reason for recusal?

  • Lack of statutory regulations: The passage emphasises the absence of clear legislation or norms controlling the judiciary’s recusal procedure. As a result, it is frequently left up to the individual judges’ discretion as to how and when to disclose the reasons for a judge’s recusal.
  • Different methods for documenting the reasons: Judges use various methods when they want to record the reasons for their absence. While some judges like to explain their decisions in writing, others prefer to do it orally in open court. However, there is no standard procedure used by the judiciary as a whole.
  • Non-disclosure of reasons: Judges sometimes refrain from disclosing the particular justifications for their recusals. This lack of openness has drawn criticism, particularly in delicate cases where several justices disqualify themselves. The lack of publicly stated motives frequently fuels speculation and raises issues regarding the judges’ intentions.
  • Examples of recusals made without giving explicit reasons include:
      • a. the Bhima Koregaon case, in which five justices of the Bombay High Court abstained without giving any explanation.
      • b. In response to Bilkis Bano’s argument, Justice Bela M. Trivedi withdrew from hearing the argument for an undisclosed reason. Her previous deputation to the Gujarat government as Law Secretary was primarily to blame for her recusal.
  • The passage refers to a recent Delhi High Court decision that says neither parties involved in the litigation nor third parties have the right to interfere, comment on, or raise questions regarding a judge’s decision to recuse themselves from a case. This case implies that outside parties have no influence over or recourse to challenge a judge’s decision to recuse.

What rules has Supreme Court formulated in the past?

  • Union of India v. Ranjit Thakur (1987):
      • The Supreme Court emphasised that an important factor in determining whether a judge should disqualify themself is the rationality of the suspicion of bias in the view of the concerned party.
      • Instead than the judge’s own self-evaluation of prejudice, the emphasis should be on how the party perceives the bias.
  • Shivananda Pathak v. State of West Bengal (1998)
      • A mental state that prevents a judge from being impartial in a particular case is known as judicial prejudice.
      • It entails the judge not being able to retain an open mind or be persuaded by arguments or facts because of a preconceived opinion, predilection, or predetermination.
  • Union of India v. Supreme Court Advocates-on-Record Association (2015):
      • For situations involving a judge’s pecuniary interest (money interest), the court adopted different requirements than for other cases.
      • There is no need to further investigate the possibility of prejudice when a judge has a financial interest because the interest itself establishes a conflict.
      • The “real danger” test should be used to establish whether there is a genuine risk of bias in situations where there is no financial incentive.
      • The “real danger” test determines if there is a plausible possibility (as opposed to a probability) of bias, making sure the court takes the possibility of prejudice into account.
  • Manoharlal and Others v. Indore Development Authority (2019):
      • According to Justice Arun Mishra’s decision, a judge who previously rendered judgement in a smaller combination (bench) is not always ineligible to serve on a bigger bench addressing a reference on the same issue.
      • Justice Mishra emphasised that a judge’s ability to be impartial in subsequent cases is not always predicated on having an opinion on a particular legal matter.
      • Finding a judge to hear and decide comparable legal issues would be difficult in the event that a judge recused themselves merely on the basis of their prior ruling

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