Just recently, Justice Ferdino Rebello was awarded a PhD by Bombay University, making him the first High Court judge from Goa to possess a Doctorate. Rebello is a known name in Goa, known even before his elevation in 1996 from a practicing lawyer to a High Court judge. In 1977 he was elected as MLA on the Janata Party ticket and represented Cuncolim constituency. He made an unsuccessful attempt to enter the Lok Sabha in 1989 but lost to Eduardo Faleiro. Politics then lost him as the judiciary discovered that the lawyer could well be sitting on the other side of the bench. Now involved in arbitration matters, Justice Rebello spoke to Alexandre Moniz Barbosa on the judiciary and life away from the bench.
Herald: You have recently been awarded a PhD from Bombay University.
Ferdino Rebello: I had registered much earlier but I had no time to complete it as I was serving on the bench and after I retired I was doing work in arbitration. I continued now and submitted my thesis in January.
Herald: What was the topic of your thesis?
Rebello: My thesis was on ‘Judicial intervention in the arbitral process in India.’ On May 30, my guide sent me a letter informing me that the PhD has been awarded.
Herald: You’ve served in the judiciary for a long period. What changes or improvements have you seen take place in this branch?
Rebello: You see the men who run the judiciary are the same, so judiciary is by and large the same. What changes have taken place is through computerization. Now what we also have is arbitration.
Herald: But is arbitration new?
Rebello: No, arbitration is as old as the courts itself. The only thing now is that more people are going in for arbitration. Especially in the complex commercial world, people prefer arbitration. Believe me, I don’t know what happens in Goa, but in the course of arbitration about 35 to 40 per cent of the matters are settled.
Herald: What about reforms in judiciary? Have you seen any reforms or are there any reforms you would like to see?
Rebello: If the Supreme Court was stricter in its admission policy perhaps a lot of reviews could have come down. High courts have got a very limited challenge because it is a first appeal so you have to look at the evidence because at the end of the day if somebody is right and somebody is wrong that error should not be allowed to continue. The second appeal itself says it is a question of law but we tend to sometimes convert an ordinary error of law into a question of law and that’s when the arrears start piling up.
Herald: What about the pace at which a case moves? Isn’t that rather slow?
Rebello: To the outside world it is. But tell me what does a judge do? For example, in Bombay I had to handle 100 admissions a day, admissions of writ petitions only. Apart from that I had hearings. Today the matters coming from the government have increased four to five fold.
Herald: Are civil cases more in number?
Rebello: Funnily, all over India civil litigation is decreasing and criminal litigation is increasing, especially in the lower courts. Earlier it was 45 to 55 now it is 35 civil and 65 criminal.
Herald: Would this be the case in Goa also?
Rebello: In Goa too. The difference would be plus or minus five per cent.
Herald: What would be the factor behind this?
Rebello: People have stopped believing in the judicial system. They prefer to take the law into their own hands.
Herald: Moving on to Goa. There have been demands for an independent High Court for the State. Do you feel Goa is ready for an independent High Court?
Rebello: There is nothing like ready for an independent High Court. The question is smaller states have got high courts. There are pros and cons to be considered as there will be three judges, one will be the chief justice and two will be local judges, so the bench will be limited.
Herald: But can’t the bench be increased.
Rebello: The number of cases won’t justify this. When I used to come to Goa in one sitting I used to dispose of one tenth of the backlog. Now if you get judges who are fast you will have a situation where there is no work. If you get good judges the bar improves. These are questions that need to be posed. Having an independent high court is a political decision of the government of the day. If it decides to have a high court and the central government agrees nobody can stop you.
Herald: So the advantages of an independent high court would be practically nil.
Rebello: Yes, and frankly the chief justice who would be sent here would not be the best. It would be from a smaller high court, somebody who is about to retire. These are practical problems. I wouldn’t want to enter into a debate now.
Herald: As you must be aware there has been a delay in the appointment of a Lokayukta for Goa. Do you feel that this delay is furthering corruption in anyway?
Rebello: Once politicians are aware that they are under the watch of a Lokayukta, that their jobs are on the line, things may change. In Maharashtra judgements have brought down chief ministers. And in Goa which is a smaller state, if you have a strong Lokayukta, provided he has been given the powers… Perhaps what could be done is a Lokayukta could be combined with some other authorities like for example the Human Rights Commission.
Herald: Can this combination be done?
Rebello: I don’t think there is any statutory bar on this. I have not checked, this is just a suggestion. But the Lokayukta has to be given some powers otherwise it will become just another commission.
Herald: Coming to your brief political career. After the defeat in 1989 you stayed away totally from politics. Was that a conscious decision or did your law career take up all of your time?
Rebello: Let me say this, I was an unfit politician. I may have been a social activist, but I was not a politician. For me it was more of beliefs in matters of society, people’s rights. It was a very strange way that I landed in politics. I was a trade union leader at that time and they had even threatened to put me inside. I was organizing a sports contest in Cuncolim when some of my friends came and said, ‘you must contest the elections.’ I was given a ticket and I won. I spent no money. At that time people worked for you, people spent money from their pockets for you. I had no money at that time as I had just entered the profession. In 1989 I had not planned to contest but then the election was countermanded and I contested that election. After that I took a conscious decision not to get into politics.
Herald: Now that you are retired, would you reconsider the decision and re-enter politics?
Rebello: After having become the chief justice of a high court I would not want to get into politics.
Herald: Did your social activism influence you in any way during your time on the bench?
Rebello: Justice Krishna Iyer once said that his judgements on social reforms came to him when he was suffering imprisonment. A judge who has been in activism has a better view of society than one who has spent all his time on the bench. And I would say that to a large extent my judgements on reforms, for example on the ecology of Goa, were a part of my experience in activism. I passed a number of judgements to protect the ecology. If today in Goa you don’t find the footpaths clustered is because I was sitting on the bench in Goa during the vacation and a petition came to me from Vasco on this. I issued notices to the chief officers of all the municipalities of Goa and issued directions that they would be responsible for this. Luckily for me my brother colleagues continued that. Where the ramponkars are concerned I received a letter petition and I issued the first order on banning fishing during the monsoon. Whenever I came down to Goa I did a lot as far as the ecology and environment is concerned. In Bombay I freed Shivaji Park of public functions. Another important judgement was on Christian adoption. In UP there was sand mining in River Ganga and no government was willing to tackle it. I put a stop to it. But unfortunately, judges can only pass judgements. It is for the executive to act. These judgements give me fulfillment and which have come with experience in social movements.
Herald: There was a move to start an international arbitration centre in Goa, but it fizzled out.
Rebello: Many want international arbitration centres, but the moot question is that people don’t come to India for arbitration because our law is uncertain. Unlike Singapore and London where the courts hardly interfere with the awards of arbitration. What has happened in India is there has been too much of interference in the awards and that was the subject of my thesis, that we must limit the interference in arbitration awards.