‘It’s high time we put an end to the disturbing trend of Govt ignoring our directions.’ Read why Supreme Court directed constitution of National Tribunals Commission

[Note: This report is a detailed analysis of Supreme Court’s judgment in Madras Bar Association v. Union of India[1]. To read the guidelines and directions issued by the Court, click here.]

Supreme Court: The 3-judge bench of L. Nageswara Rao*, Hemant Gupta and S. Ravindra Bhat has issued extensive directions in relating to selection, appointment, tenure, conditions of service, etc. relating to various tribunals, 19 in number, thereby calling for certain modifications to the Tribunal, Appellate Tribunal and other Authorities [Qualification, Experience and Other Conditions of Service of Members] Rules, 2020

The Supreme Court was once again, within the span of a year, called upon to decide the issue at hand. Last year, the Constitution Bench in Rojer Mathew v. South Indian Bank Ltd., (2020) 6 SCC 1 had held that the Tribunal, Appellate Tribunal and Other Authorities (Qualifications, Experience and Other Conditions of Service of Members) Rules, 2017, as a whole was ultra vires.

“That the judicial system and this Court in particular has to live these déjà vu moments, time and again (exemplified by no less than four constitution bench judgments) in the last 8 years, speaks profound volumes about the constancy of other branches of governance, in their insistence regarding these issues.”

Here is the explainer on the directions issued by the Court:

NATIONAL TRIBUNALS COMMISSION

“We have noticed a disturbing trend of the Government not implementing the directions issued by this Court. To ensure that the Tribunals should not function as another department under the control of the executive, repeated directions have been issued which have gone unheeded forcing the Petitioner to approach this Court time and again. It is high time that we put an end to this practice.”

Noticing that the Tribunals are not free from the Executive control and that they are not perceived to be independent judicial bodies, the Court said that there was an imperative need to ensure that the Tribunals discharge the judicial functions without any interference of the Executive whether directly or indirectly.

Hence,

“An independent body headed by a retired Judge of the Supreme Court supervising the appointments and the functioning of the Tribunals apart from being in control of any disciplinary proceedings against the Members would not only improve the functioning of the Tribunals but would also be in accordance with the principles of judicial independence.”

To stop the dependence of the Tribunals on their parent Departments for routing their requirements and to ensure speedy administrative decision making, as an interregnum measure, it was hence directed that there should be a separate “tribunals wing” established in the Ministry of Finance, Government of India to take up, deal with and finalize requirements of all the Tribunals till the National Tribunals Commission is established.

Read the directions here

SEARCH-CUM-SELECTION COMMITTEE

After it was brought to Court’s notice that the constitution of the Search-cum-Selection Committees as per 2020 Rules does not ensure judicial dominance, the Court made the following directions:

  • a casting vote will be given to the Chief Justice of India or his nominee as the Chairperson of the Search-cum-Selection Committee.
  • normally the Chairperson of the Tribunal would be a retired Judge of the Supreme Court or the Chief Justice of a High Court. However, there are certain Tribunals in which the Chairperson may not be a judicial member. In such Tribunals, the Search-cum-Selection Committee should have a retired Judge of the Supreme Court or a retired Chief Justice of a High Court nominated by the Chief Justice of India in place of the Chairperson of the Tribunal.
  • the 2020 Rules would be amended to reflect that whenever the re-appointment of the Chairman or Chairperson or President of a Tribunal is considered by the Search-cum-Selection Committee, the Chairman or Chairperson or President of the Tribunal shall be replaced by a retired Judge of the Supreme Court or a retired Chief Justice of a High Court nominated by the Chief Justice of India.
  • Secretary to the sponsoring or parent Department shall serve as the Member-Secretary/Convener to the Search-cum-Selection Committee and shall function in the Search-cum-Selection Committee without a vote.
  • Rule 4 (2) of the Rules that postulates that a panel of two or three persons shall be recommended by the Search-cum-Selection Committee from which the appointments to the posts of Chairperson or members of the Tribunal shall be made by the Central Government, shall be amended and till so amended, that it be read as empowering the Search-cum-Selection Committee to recommend the name of only one person for each post. Taking note of the requirement of the reports of the selected candidates from the Intelligence Bureau, another suitable person can be selected by the Search-cum-Selection Committee and placed in the waiting list.

Read the directions here

TERM OF OFFICE

At present Rule 9(1) permits a Chairman, Chairperson or President of the Tribunal to continue till 70 years which is in conformity with Parliamentary mandate in Section 184 of the Finance Act. However, Rule 9(2) provides that Vice Chairman and other members shall hold office till they attain 65 years.

Accepting Amicus Curiae’s submission that under the 2020 Rules, the Vice Chairman, Vice-Chairperson or Vice-President or members in almost all the Tribunals will have only a short tenure of less than three years if the maximum age is 65 years, the Court directed the Government to amend Rule 9 (1) of the 2020 Rules by making the term of Chairman, Chairperson or President as five years or till they attain 70 years, whichever is earlier and other members dealt with in Rule 9(2) as five years or till they attain 67 years, whichever is earlier.

Section 184 of the Finance Act, 2017 provides for reappointment of Chairpersons, Vice-Chairpersons and members of the Tribunals on completion of their tenure. There is no mention of reappointment in the 2020 Rules. Hence, Reappointment for at least one term shall be provided to the persons who are appointed to the Tribunals at a young age by giving preference to the service rendered by them.

Read the directions here

HOUSE RENT ALLOWANCE

Noticing that lack of housing in Delhi has been one of the reasons for retired Judges of the High Courts and the Supreme Court to not accept appointments to Tribunals, the Court directed the Government of India to make serious efforts to provide suitable housing to the Chairperson and the members of the Tribunals and in case providing housing is not possible, to enhance the house rent allowance to Rs.1,25,000/- for members of Tribunals and Rs.1,50,000/- for the Chairman or Chairperson or President and Vice Chairman or Vice Chairperson or Vice President of Tribunals.

“… an option should be given to the Chairperson and the members of the Tribunals to either apply for housing accommodation to be provided by the Government of India as per the existing rules or to accept the enhanced house rent allowance. This direction shall be effective from 01.01.2021.”

Read the directions here

ADVOCATES AS JUDICIAL MEMBERS

While the Attorney General suggested that an advocate who has 25 years of experience should be considered for appointment as a Judicial member, the Amicus Curiae suggested that it should be 15 years.

Considering both the suggestions, the Court said,

“As the qualification for an advocate of a High Court for appointment as a Judge of a High Court is only 10 years, we are of the opinion that the experience at the bar should be on the same lines for being considered for appointment as a judicial member of a Tribunal.”

However, it is left open to the Search-cum-Selection Committee to take into account in the experience of the Advocates at the bar and the specialization of the Advocates in the relevant branch of law while considering them for appointment as judicial members.

Read the directions here

ELIGIBILITY OF MEMBERS OF INDIAN LEGAL SERVICE

The Court directed that the members of Indian Legal Service shall be entitled to be considered for appointment as a judicial member subject to their fulfilling the other criteria which advocates are subjected to. In addition, the nature of work done by the members of the Indian Legal Service and their specialization in the relevant branches of law shall be considered by the Search-cum-Selection Committee while evaluating their candidature.

Read the directions here

IMPORTANCE OF APPOINTMENT OF COMPETENT AND YOUNG LAWYERS AND TECHNICAL MEMBERS

Tribunals discharge a judicial role, and with respect to matters entrusted to them, the jurisdiction of civil courts is usually barred. Therefore, wherever legal expertise in the particular domain is implicated, it would be natural that advocates with experience in the same, or ancillary field would provide the “catchment” for consideration for membership. This is also the case with selection of technical members, who would have expertise in the scientific or technical, or wherever required, policy background.

Younger advocates who are around 45 years old bring in fresh perspectives. Many states induct lawyers just after 7 years of practice directly as District Judges.

“If the justice delivery system by tribunals is to be independent and vibrant, absorbing technological changes and rapid advances, it is essential that those practitioners with a certain vitality, energy and enthusiasm are inducted.”

25 years of practice even with a five-year degree holder, would mean that the minimum age of induction would be 48 years: it may be more, given the time taken to process recommendations. Therefore, a tenure without assured re-engagements would not be feasible. A younger lawyer, who may not be suitable to continue after one tenure (or is reluctant to continue), can still return, to the bar, than an older one, who may not be able to piece her life together again.

Read the directions here

REMOVAL OF MEMBERS

Rule 8 of the 2020 Rules provides the procedure for inquiry of misbehavior or incapacity of a member. According to the said Rule, the preliminary scrutiny of the complaint is done by the Central Government. If the Central Government finds that there are reasonable grounds for conducting an inquiry into the allegations made against a member in the complaint, it shall make a reference to the Search-cum-Selection Committee which shall conduct an inquiry and submit the report to the Central Government.

However, Amicus Curiae argued that there is no clarity in the Rules as to whether the reports submitted by the Search-cum-Selection Committee are binding on the Central Government. The Attorney General submitted that the preliminary scrutiny done by the Central Government, according to Rule 8 (1) is only for the purpose of weeding out frivolous complaints and that the recommendations made by the Search-cum-Selection Committee shall be implemented by the Central Government. The Court accepted the submissions of the learned Attorney General.

Read the directions here

TIME LIMIT FOR APPOINTMENT

“The very reason for constituting Tribunals is to supplement the functions of the High Courts and the other Courts and to ensure that the consumer of justice gets speedy redressal to his grievances. This would be defeated if the Tribunals do not function effectively.”

It was brought to Court’s notice that there are a large number of unfilled vacancies hampering the progress of the functioning of the Tribunals. The pendency of cases in the Tribunals is increasing mainly due to the lack of personnel in the Tribunals which is due to the delay in filling up the vacancies as and when they arise due to the retirement of the members.

The Court, hence, directed that the Government of India shall make the appointments to the Tribunals within three months after the Search-cum-Selection Committee completes the selection and makes its recommendations.

Read the directions here

RETROSPECTIVITY OF THE 2020 RULES

The Court rejected the submission of learned Attorney General that the 2020 Rules which replaced the Tribunal, Appellate Tribunal and other Authorities (Qualification, Experience and Other Conditions of Service of Members) Rules, 2017 shall come into force with effect from 26.05.2017 which was the appointed day in accordance with the 2017 Rules and said,

“It is true that the 2017 Rules were brought into force from 26.05.2017 and Section 183 of the Finance Act provides for any appointment made after the appointed day shall be in accordance with the Rules made under Section 184 of the Finance Act, 2017. 2017 Rules which have come into force with effect from 26.05.2017 in accordance with Section 183 have been struck down by this Court. The 2020 Rules which came into force from the date of their publication in the Official Gazette, i.e. 12.02.2020, cannot be given retrospective effect.”

Further, the intention of Government of India to make the 2020 Rules prospective is very clear from the notification dated 12.02.2020. In any event, subordinate legislation cannot be given retrospective effect unless the parent statute specifically provides for the same.

The Court, however, clarified that all appointments made prior to the 2020 Rules which came into force on 12.02.2020 shall be governed by the parent Acts and Rules. Any appointment made after the 2020 Rules have come into force shall be in accordance with the 2020 Rules subject to the modifications directed in this judgment.

Read the directions here

In the petition that was filed by Madras Bar Association, the Court directed the Government to strictly adhere to the directions and not force the Petitioner-Madras Bar Association, which has been relentless in its efforts to ensure judicial independence of the Tribunals, to knock the doors of this Court again.

[Madras Bar Association v. Union of India, 2020 SCC OnLine SC 962, decided on 27.11.2020]


*Justice L. Nageswara Rao has penned this judgment.

[1] Writ Petition (C) No.804 of 2020, decided on 27.11.2020

Counsels heard:

Senior Advocate Arvind Datar, amicus curiae

Attorney General for India K.K. Venugopal,

Additional Solicitor General Balbir Singh and S.V. Raju,

Senior Advocates Mukul Rohtagi, C.A. Sundaram, Vikas Singh,. Anitha Shenoy, R. Balasubramanium, A.S. Chandhiok, Virender Ganda, M.S. Ganesh, Sidharth Luthra, C.S. Vaidyanathan, Guru Krishnakumar, Rakesh Kumar Khanna, Gautam Misra, P.S. Narasimha.

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