Supreme Court: A 3-Judge Bench of the Supreme Court, by a majority of 2:1, has declared that certain portions of Section 184 of the Finance Act, 2017 as amended by the Tribunal Reforms (Rationalisation and Conditions of Service) Ordinance, 2021 are unconstitutional and inoperative. Section 184 consists of provisions relating to the qualifications, appointment, etc., of Chairperson and Members of tribunals. The majority was formed by L. Nageswara Rao, J. who delivered the leading opinion, and S. Ravindra Bhat, J. penning a separate concurring opinion. Whereas, Hemant Gupta, J. wrote a substantially dissenting opinion.
The Madras Bar Association filed the instant writ petition seeking a declaration that Section 12 of the Tribunal Reforms (Rationalisation and Conditions of Service) Ordinance, 2021 (“Ordinance”) and Section 184 of the Finance Act, 2017 as amended by the Ordinance are ultra vires Articles 14, 21 and 50 of the Constitution of India inasmuch as these are violative of the principles of separation of powers and independence of judiciary, apart from being contrary to the principles laid down by several earlier judgments of the Supreme Court.
The dispute raised in the writ petition relates to:
(i) First proviso to Section 184(1) according to which a person below the age of 50 years shall not be eligible for appointment as Chairperson or Member; and also the second proviso, read with the third proviso, which stipulates that the allowances and benefits payable to Chairpersons and Members shall be the same as a Central Government officer holding a post carrying the same pay as that of the Chairpersons and Members.
(ii) Section 184(7) which stipulates that the Selection Committee shall recommend a panel of two names for appointment to the post of Chairperson or Member and the Central Government shall take a decision preferably within three months from the date of the recommendation of the Committee, notwithstanding any judgment, order or decree of any Court.
(iii) Section 184(11) which shall be deemed to have been inserted with effect from 26-5-2017, provides that the term of office of the Chairperson and Member of a tribunal shall be four years. The age of retirement of the Chairperson and Members is specified as 70 years and 67 years, respectively. As per the proviso, if the term of office or the age of retirement specified in the order of appointment issued by the Central Government for those who have been appointed between 26-5-2017 and 4-4-2021 is greater than that specified in Section 184(11), the term of office or the age of retirement shall be as set out in the order of appointment, subject to a maximum term of office of five years.
The Finance Act and the Ordinance
The Finance Act, 2017 was brought into force from 31-3-2017 to give effect to the financial proposals for the financial year 2017-18. Sections 183 to 189 thereof dealt with conditions of service of Chairperson and Members of Tribunals, Appellate Tribunals and other authorities.
The Tribunal Reforms (Rationalisation and Conditions of Service) Bill, 2021 was introduced in the Lok Sabha on 13-2-2021 but could not be taken up for consideration. According to the Statement of Objects and Reasons, the said Bill was proposed with a view to streamline tribunals and sought to abolish certain tribunals and other authorities, which “only add to another additional layer of litigation” and were not “beneficial for the public at large”. Thereafter, the Tribunal Reforms (Rationalisation and Conditions of Service) Ordinance, 2021 was promulgated on 4-4-2021. Chapter XI thereof makes amendments to the Finance Act, 2017.
Discussion and Observations
Separation of Power
Discussing this indispensable concept, the Court said that the doctrine of separation of powers, though not expressly engrafted in the Constitution, its sweep, operation and visibility are apparent from the scheme of the Indian Constitution. It forms part of basic structure of the Constitution. The Constitution has made demarcation, without drawing formal lines between the three organs ─ legislature, executive and judiciary, which is nothing but a consequence of principles of equality enshrined in Article 14 of the Constitution. Accordingly, breach of separation of judicial power may amount to negation of equality under Article 14. Stating thus, the Court reaffirmed:
“Violation of separation of powers would result in infringement of Article 14 of the Constitution. A legislation can be declared as unconstitutional if it is in violation of the principle of separation of powers.“
Independence of Judiciary
On this point, the Court recorded that independence of judiciary is a fighting faith of our Constitution. It is cardinal principle of the Constitution that an independent judiciary is the most essential characteristic of a free society like ours and the judiciary which is to act as a bastion of the rights and freedom of people is given certain constitutional guarantees to safeguard independence of judiciary. An independent and efficient judicial system has been recognised as a part of basic structure of our Constitution.
After discussing Article 50 (which provides that the State shall take steps to separate the judiciary from the executive in the public services of the State) and Article 37 (which declares that the principles laid down in Part IV of the Constitution are fundamental in the governance of the country and it should be the duty of the State to apply the principles in making laws), the Court observed:
“[Independence] is the lifeblood of the judiciary. … It is the freedom from interference and pressures which provides the judicial atmosphere where [a Judge] can work with absolute commitment to the cause of justice and constitutional values. It is also the discipline in life, habits and outlook that enables a Judge to be impartial. Its existence depends however not only on philosophical, ethical or moral aspects but also upon several mundane things ─ security in tenure, freedom from ordinary monetary worries, freedom from influences and pressures within (from others in the judiciary) and without (from the executive).“
Judicial Decisions and Legislative Overruling
The controversy that arose for consideration of the Court in the instant writ petition relates to the legislative response to the judgment of the Court in Madras Bar Assn. v. Union of India, 2020 SCC OnLine SC 962 (“Madras Bar Assn. case“). In that case, the validity of the Tribunal, Appellate Tribunal and other Authorities (Qualifications, Experience and other Conditions of Service of Members) Rules, 2020 (“2020 Rules”) was challenged by the Madras Bar Association. The relevant portions of the decision in Madras Bar Assn. case along with the affect of the Ordinance are discussed below at relevant place.
(A) Judicial Review
Appreciating the scope of judicial review of ordinances, the Court noted that it is the same as that of a legislative act. Article 123 of the Constitution empowers the President to promulgate an ordinance during recess of the Parliament, which shall have the same force and effect as an act of the Parliament. The validity of an ordinance can be challenged on grounds available for judicial review of a legislative act.
The power to strike down primary legislation enacted by the Union of India or the State legislatures is on limited grounds. Where there is challenge to the constitutional validity of a law enacted by the legislature, the Court must keep in view that there is always a presumption of constitutionality of an enactment and a clear transgression of constitutional principles must be shown. The Court reiterated that:
“[S]ans flagrant violation of the constitutional provisions, the law made by Parliament or a State legislature is not declared bad and legislative enactment can be struck down only on two grounds: (i) that the appropriate legislature does not have the competence to make the law, and (ii) that it takes away or abridges any of the fundamental rights enumerated in Part III of the Constitution or any other constitutional provisions. [‘Manifest arbitrariness’ is also recognised] as a ground under Article 14 on the basis of which a legislative enactment can be judicially reviewed.“
(B) Permissible Legislative Overruling
The Court culled out the principles in accordance with which legislative overruling could be permissible:
(i) The effect of the judgments of the Court can be nullified by a legislative act removing the basis of the judgment. Such law can be retrospective. Retrospective amendment should be reasonable and not arbitrary and must not be violative of the fundamental rights guaranteed under the Constitution.
(ii) The test for determining the validity of validating legislation is that the judgment pointing out the defect would not have been passed, if the altered position as sought to be brought in by the validating statute existed before the Court at the time of rendering its judgment. In other words, the defect pointed out should have been cured such that the basis of the judgment pointing out the defect is removed.
(iii) Nullification of mandamus by an enactment would be an impermissible legislative exercise. Even interim directions cannot be reversed by a legislative veto.
(iv) Transgression of constitutional limitations and intrusion into the judicial power by the legislature is violative of the principle of separation of powers, the rule of law and of Article 14 of the Constitution of India.
Validity of the Ordinance and Amended Provisions
The grievance of the petitioners was mainly related to the violation of the first proviso and the second proviso, read with the third proviso, to Section 184(1), Sections 184(7) and 184(11) of the Finance Act, 2017 as amended by the Ordinance.
(A) The first proviso of Section 184(1) provides minimum age for appointment as Chairperson or Member of a tribunal as 50 years.
One of the issues considered in Madras Bar Assn. case was the correctness of the conditions imposed in the 2020 Rules that an advocate is eligible for appointment as a Member only if he has 25 years of experience. It is relevant to state that advocates were ineligible for most of the tribunals. In Madras Bar Assn. case, the Court found the exclusion of advocates from being appointed as Members to be contrary to earlier judgments of the Court. In such view of the matter, a direction was given to amend the 2020 Rules to make advocates with at least 10 years of experience at the bar eligible for appointment as Members in tribunals.
Discussing that the direction given in the nature of mandamus in Madras Bar Assn. case is to the effect that advocates are eligible for appointment as Members, provided they have experience of 10 years, the Court in the instant petition observed:
“The first proviso to Section 184 which prescribes a minimum age of 50 years is an attempt to circumvent the direction issued in Madras Bar Assn. case striking down the experience requirement of 25 years at the bar for advocates to be eligible. Introduction of the first proviso to Section 184(1) is a direct affront to the judgment of this Court in Madras Bar Assn. case.”
Underlining the importance of recruitment of Members from the bar at a young age to ensure a longer tenure, the Court was of the view that fixing a minimum age for recruitment of Members as 50 years would act as a deterrent for competent advocates to seek appointment. Practically, it would be difficult for an advocate appointed after attaining the age of 50 years to resume legal practice after completion of one term, in case he is not reappointed. Security of tenure and conditions of service are recognised as core components of independence of the judiciary. Independence of the judiciary can be sustained only when the incumbents are assured of fair and reasonable conditions of service, which include adequate remuneration and security of tenure.
The Court found that first proviso to Section 184(1) is in violation of the doctrine of separation of powers as the judgment Madras Bar Assn. case has been frustrated by an impermissible legislative override.
Resultantly, the first proviso to Section 184(1) was declared unconstitutional as it is violative of Article 14 of the Constitution.
It was directed that the selections conducted for appointment of Members, ITAT pursuant to the advertisement issued in 2018 should be finalised and appointments made by considering the candidates between 35 to 50 years as also eligible.
Ravindra Bhat, J., in his separate concurring opinion said that:
“Prescribing 50 years as a minimum age limit for consideration of advocates has the devastating effect of entirely excluding successful young advocates, especially those who might be trained and competent in the particular subject (such as Indirect Taxation, Anti-Dumping, Income-Tax, International Taxation and Telecom Regulation). The exclusion of such eligible candidates in preference to those who are more than 50 years of age is inexplicable and therefore entirely arbitrary.“
(B) The second proviso to Section 184(1) deals with the allowances and benefits payable to the Members which are to be the same as are admissible to a Central Government officer holding a post carrying the same pay.
In Madras Bar Assn. case, the Court considered Rule 15 of the 2020 Rules according to which, Chairpersons and Members of tribunals were entitled to House Rent Allowance at the same rate as admissible to officers with the Government of India holding Group ‘A’ post carrying the same pay. In that case, it was noted that an amount of Rs 75,000 per month which was paid as HRA was not sufficient to get a decent accommodation in Delhi for Chairpersons and Members of tribunals. Taking note of the serious problem of housing and the inadequate amount that was being paid as HRA to the Members, the Court in that case directed enhancement of HRA to Rs 1,25,000 per month to the Members and Rs 1,50,000 per month to Chairperson or Vice-Chairperson or President of tribunals. This direction was made effective from 1-1-2021.
Noting the submission of the Amicus Curiae that result of the instant amendment made by the Ordinance is that the Members of tribunals working in Delhi will get Rs 60,000 as HRA, the Court was of the view that the second proviso to Section 184(1), read with the third proviso, is an affront to the judgment in Madras Bar Assn. case. The direction issued in Madras Bar Assn. case for payment of HRA was to ensure that decent accommodation is provided to tribunal Members. Such direction was issued to uphold independence of the judiciary and it cannot be subject matter of legislative response. The Court held that a mandamus issued by the Supreme Court cannot be reversed by the legislature as it would amount to impermissible legislative override.
Therefore, the second proviso, read with the third proviso, to Section 184(1) was declared as unconstitutional.
The Court noted that after the judgment in the instant writ petition was reserved on 3-6-2021, the Ministry of Finance amended the 2020 Rules whereby the earlier Rule 15 was substituted. The Explanatory Memorandum at the end of the notification states that the amendment to Rule 15 of the 2020 Rules on HRA, shall be given retrospective operation with effect from 1-1-2021, in order to give effect to the judgment in Madras Bar Assn. case. The Court was of the opinion that this amendment to Rule 15 is in conformity with the directions on the subject of HRA in Madras Bar Assn. case. In view thereof, no further direction is required to be given with respect to HRA.
(A) Section 184(7) stipulates that a Search-cum-Selection Committee shall recommend a panel of two names for appointment to the post of Chairperson or Member and the Central Government shall take a decision preferably within three months from the date of the recommendation of the Committee, notwithstanding any judgment, order or decree of any Court.
Rule 4(2) of the 2020 Rules pertains to the procedure to be followed by the Selection Committee. According to the said Rule, the Selection Committee should recommend two or three names for appointment to each post. A direction was given in Madras Bar Assn. case to amend Rule 4(2) of the 2020 Rules to provide that the Selection Committee shall recommend one person for appointment in each post in place of a panel of two or three persons for appointment to each post.
The Court recorded that sufficient reasons were given in Madras Bar Assn. case to hold that executive influence should be avoided in matters of appointments to tribunals ─ therefore, the direction that only one person shall be recommended to each post. The decision of the Court in that regard is law laid down under Article 141 of the Constitution. The only way the legislature could nullify the said decision was by curing the defect in Rule 4(2). There is no such attempt made except to repeat the provision of Rule 4(2) of the 2020 Rules in the Ordinance amending the Finance Act, 2017.
Ergo, Section 184(7) was declared to be unsustainable in law as it is an attempt to override the law laid down by the Supreme Court.
(B) The second part of Section 184(7) provides that the Government shall take a decision regarding the recommendations made by the Selection Committee preferably within a period of three months. This was in response to the direction in Madras Bar Assn. case that the Government shall make appointments to tribunals within three months from the completion of the selection and recommendation by the Selection Committee.
Such direction, the Court noted, was necessitated in view of the lethargy shown by the Union of India in making appointments and filling up the posts of Chairpersons and Members of tribunals which have been long vacant. The direction given in Madras Bar Assn. case for expediting the process of appointment was in the larger interest of administration of justice and to uphold the rule of law.
The Court held, Section 184(7) as amended by the Ordinance permitting the Government to take a decision preferably within three months from the date of recommendation of the Selection Committee is invalid and unconstitutional, as this amended provision simply seeks to negate the directions of the Supreme Court.
(A) The tenure of the Chairperson and Member of a tribunal is fixed at four years by Section 184(11), notwithstanding anything contained in any judgment, order or decree of any court. Sub-section (11) of Section 184 has been given retrospective effect from 26-5-2017.
Rule 9 of 2020 Rules had specified the term of appointment of the Chairperson or Member of the Tribunal as four years. After perusing the law laid down by earlier judgments that a short stint is anti-merit, the Court in the Madras Bar Assn. case directed the modification of tenure in Rules 9(1) and 9(2) as five years in respect of Chairpersons and Members of tribunals.
The Court, in the instant petition, held that insertion of Section 184(11) prescribing a term of four years for the Chairpersons and Members of tribunals by giving retrospective effect to the provision from 26-5-2017 is clearly an attempt to override the declaration of law by the Supreme Court under Article 141 in the Madras Bar Assn. case.
Therefore, clauses (i) and (ii) of Section 184(11) were declared as void and unconstitutional.
(B) The proviso to Section 184(11) refers to appointments that were made to the posts of Chairperson or Members between 26-5-2017 and the notified date, i.e., 4-4-2021. The proviso lays down that the term of office of Chairperson and Members of tribunals who were appointed between 26-5-2017 and 4-4-2021 shall be five years even though the order of appointment issued by the Government had a higher term of office or age of retirement.
On this point, the Court referred to the interim directions given by the Supreme Court on 9-2-2018 in Kudrat Sandhu v. Union of India, 2018 SCC OnLine SC 2898 wherein it was held that all selections to the post of Chairperson/ Chairman, Judicial/ Administrative Members shall be for a period as provided in the Act and the Rules in respect of all tribunals. Reference was also made to certain subsequent orders passed in the same case of Kudrat Sandhu.
Coming back to the instant petition, the Court was of the opinion that though, there is nothing wrong with the proviso to Section 184(11) being given retrospective effect, the appointments made pursuant to the interim directions passed by the Supreme Court cannot be interfered with. The Court pointed out that even the interim orders passed by the Supreme Court cannot be overruled by a legislative act.
While making it clear that the appointments that are made to the CESTAT on the basis of interim orders passed by the Supreme Court shall be governed by the relevant statute and the rules framed thereunder, as they existed prior to the Finance Act, 2017, the Court upheld the retrospectivity given to the proviso to Section 184(11). Clarifying further, the Court stated that appointments after 4-4-2021 shall be governed by the Ordinance, as modified by the directions in the instant judgment.
Consequently, Section 12 of the Ordinance making amendments in the earlier Section 184 of the Finance Act, 2017, also stands invalidated.
Lastly, it may also be mentioned that the upshot of the dissenting opinion written by Hemant Gupta, J. (as summarised by S. Ravindra Bhat, J. in his opinion) was that as regards prescription of minimum age or with respect to conditions of service such as payment of house rent allowance, the Court ought to respect legislative wisdom; and that the directions issued in past judgments cannot bind Parliament, as they fell outside the judicial sphere.
The writ petition stood disposed of in terms of the majority judgment. [Madras Bar Assn. v. Union of India, 2021 SCC OnLine SC 463, decided on 14-7-2021]
 Union of India v. Madras Bar Assn., (2010) 11 SCC 1; Madras Bar Assn. v. Union of India, (2014) 10 SCC 1; Rojer Mathew v. South Indian Bank Ltd., (2020) 6 SCC 1; and Madras Bar Assn. v. Union of India, 2020 SCC OnLine SC 962
 Vide Rule 6, the Tribunal, Appellate Tribunal and other Authorities (Qualifications, Experience and other Conditions of Service of Members) (Amendment) Rules, 2021