Judicial Appointments Conundrum Post-NJAC Verdict

Who is a Puisne Judge, and what does the term mean?


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level: Puisne Judges, Three Judges Case

Mains level: Not Much

While recommending two names for appointment as judges of the Supreme Court, the Collegium headed by Chief Justice of India D Y Chandrachud said that the collegium had taken into “consideration the seniority of Chief Justices and senior puisne Judges…”

Who are Puisne Judge?

  • According to the dictionary, the word puisne has French origins, which means “later born” or younger.
  • It is pronounced / “puny”, the English word that means small or undersized.
  • Puisne is almost always used in the context of judges, and essentially denotes seniority of rank.
  • The term puisne judge is used in common law countries to refer to judges who are ranked lower in seniority, i.e., any judge other than the Chief Justice of that court.

Now again, what is common law?

  • Common law is the body of law that is created by judges through their written opinions, rather than through statutes or constitutions (statutory law).
  • Common law, which is used interchangeably with ‘case law’, is based on judicial precedent.
  • The United Kingdom (UK) and the Commonwealth countries, including India, are common law countries.

Legal reference to Puisne Judges

In the Third Judges Case ruling in 1998, one of the two cases that led to the evolution of the collegium system, the Supreme Court clarified that-

  • The CJI must make a recommendation to appoint a Judge of the Supreme Court and to transfer a Chief Justice or puisne Judge of a High Court in consultation with the four seniormost puisne Judges of the Supreme Court.

Is a “puisne judge” in India the same as in the UK?

  • In the UK, puisne judges are judges other than those holding distinct titles.
  • The Supreme Court of Judicature Act, 1877 defined a “puisne judge” as any judge of the High Court besides the Lord Chancellor, the Lord Chief Justice of England, and the Master of the Rolls.
  • In India, all judges have the same judicial powers.
  • As the seniormost judge of a court, the Chief Justice has an additional administrative role.
  • In India, there is a reference to a puisne judge only while considering the order of seniority for appointments, elevations to High Courts, etc., but it does not have a bearing on the exercise of a judge’s judicial power.

What is the recent context?

  • The Supreme Court collegium recommended current Chief Justices of the Allahabad and Gujarat High Courts respectively, for appointment as judges of the Supreme Court.
  • While giving reasons for its recommendation, the collegium said that the decision was made taking “into consideration the seniority of Chief Justices and senior puisne Judges in their respective parent High Courts.
  • This was done because seniority is one of the several criteria that are considered while making appointments to the higher judiciary.


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