SC paves the way for bipolar man to be a judge

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New Delhi: Eleven years ago, Bhavya Nain, then 25, was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, a mental health condition causing extreme mood swings including emotional highs and lows, and according to the World Health Organization, the sixth leading cause of disability worldwide.

Nain was prescribed medication, and advised counselling by a psychiatrist. Both helped him manage the disability, and, Nain, a law graduate, set voyage on an uncharted course – to become a judge.

On Monday, the Supreme Court declared the end of at least this phase of his journey, ordering his immediate appointment as a judicial officer in Delhi along with appropriate seniority. A bench, headed by justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul, held that there is no impediment in Nain taking charge as a judicial officer in one of the district courts in the national capital and discharging his duties as a judge.

The bench, which included justice MM Sundresh, relied upon the report from a medical board, constituted by it on November 17, while clearing the decks for appointment of Nain in what could be the first such order that breaks the glass ceiling in judicial appointments.

The medical board, which comprised experts in psychiatry and physical medicine and rehabilitation (PM&R) interacted with Nain, and also examined his medical records before informing the bench that “there is nothing to indicate that he will not be able to discharge his responsibilities to the post of judicial officer for which he has been selected”.

Nain cleared the Delhi Judicial Service-2018 examination after applying under the category of persons with disability (PwD). He got through all three rounds of the examination, including the interview, but his candidature was rejected in May 2019 by the Delhi high court administration.

When Nain challenged this decision before the high court on the judicial side, the administration argued that Nain would not be able to effectively discharge his duties as a judicial officer because of his mental illness; and that his disability cannot be construed as permanent or long-term in nature since Nain is under remission and his condition is likely to improve. Once the disability falls under 40% at some point in future, the high court argued, Nain would not be entitled to the benefit of reservation under the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016.

A high court decision in May 2020 allowed Nain’s plea, underlining that the 2016 Act included mental illness as a form of disability for which reservation had to be accorded to the eligible candidates.

“It appears that the Parliament granted reservation, inter alia, to PwD – who suffer from mental illness (which does not include retardation, as taken note of hereinabove), so that such persons get an opportunity to lead a normal life with encouragement and dignity. Merely because they may need medication and treatment throughout their lives, or may suffer setbacks from time to time, cannot be a reason to deny them equal opportunity to assimilate in the society, make their contribution and have a life of dignity,” the high court judgment noted.

Firm on its views that Nain should not be inducted as a judicial officer, the administration challenged this order in the Supreme Court, arguing that he cannot be granted the benefit of relaxed standard admissible to candidates belonging to persons with disability since his disability is not lifelong, and that his condition could improve in future. The high court administration also raised serious questions over Nain’s ability to preside over a court and decide cases.

In August 2020, the Supreme Court stayed the operation of the high court judgment but asked the administration to keep one post vacant for Nain in case it ruled in his favour.

Nain, through his lawyers, told the top court that the very fact that he cleared the examination including the viva-voce buttressed the case for his ability to handle the judicial work, more so since bipolar disorder is a medical problem which can be tackled with proper medication.

When the court, in its hearing on November 17, found it appropriate to constitute a medical board for ascertaining Nain’s capability to efficiently discharge his duty as a judicial officer, his lawyers highlighted the innate social prejudices which arise while considering such cases for appointment, besides absence of parameters to judge the capacity of a judge.

At this, the court said that “the medical board will keep its objectivity, looking at the candidate, the task which he is required to perform on appointment, and his medical condition” while asking the director of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences to set up a board for this task.

The medical board’s report informed the bench that Nain indeed suffers from bipolar disorder but has been in remission (asymptomatic) since August 2018. The board also advised Nain to continue his regular treatment and follow-up with his treating psychiatrist.

Taking on record the expert opinion, the apex court ruled that Nain “is entitled to succeed”, directing the high court administration to appoint him as a judicial officer and also give him notional seniority along with his other batchmates who joined after clearing the DJS-2018 exam.

Saima Zaidi, a counselling psychologist and psychotherapist, said: “People who suffer from bipolar disorder can live an absolutely normal life while managing their personal and professional relationships. Bipolar disorder requires lifelong management with a combination of psychotherapy and medication. Cognitive behavioral therapy is the most effective therapy, as it works on cognition and thinking pattern of a person. Medication for mood stabilizing and/or anti-depressants are usually prescribed with an advice to avoid triggers such as caffeine, alcohol and stress while having a balanced diet, regular exercise, consistent schedule and a good nights sleep.”

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