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M J Antony: Abandoned at birth

Lack of infrastructure, funds and personnel make tribunals permanent orphans of the legal system

M J Antony 

Recently, there has been a wave to set up tribunals, but establishing them seems easier than making them work. Most of the tribunals are born in the fiery crucible of litigation, like the administrative tribunals, the National Company Law Tribunal, the tax tribunals and the Competition Commission of India. Even after overcoming the constitutional hurdles, they limp along with skeletal structures, starved of funds, staff and stationery, in badly maintained rented buildings. In the case of consumer forums, it required a second round of litigation to get them going. Even a prestigious tribunal like the Securities Appellate Tribunal has been topless and truncated for long.

The latest instance of the Supreme Court’s intervention to make such quasi-judicial bodies functional was in the case of the Debts Recovery Tribunal (DRT) and its appellate bodies (Union of India vs DRT Bar Association). The Recovery of Debts due to Banking and Financial Institutions Act, 1993 was meant to ease the burden on civil courts. At the time of passing the law, more than 1.5 million cases filed by public sector banks and 300 by financial institutions were pending in various courts — blocking Rs 6,400 crore. The money now estimated to be locked up in litigation is said to be Rs 1.57 lakh crore. This is despite the entry of the Securitisation Act.

Like several other such laws establishing tribunals, this law was also caught in litigation and the Delhi High Court struck it down on several counts in 1995. One reason was that the presiding officer is appointed by the government, and the main litigants are public sector banks and the government’s financial institutions. The government-appointed officers decide on applications filed by government undertakings, raising the issue of conflict of interest and independence of judiciary.

Though the tribunals did get going, their travails are far from over. In fact, their plight is worse than that of civil courts. Last week, the Supreme Court set forth a comprehensive plan to make the 33 tribunals and their five appellate apparatuses in the country work.

It all started from Chandigarh where one bench was installed in a rented building. Since it was not able to handle the stream of complaints, another bench was set up. But owing to space constraints, both benches were squeezed in at the same place. The bar association moved the high court pointing out the inadequate infrastructure of the two benches. The high court passed an order to the Central government to provide adequate facilities. It also asked the government to frame rules for the recruitment of presiding officers and recovery officers. The government appealed to the Supreme Court against these directions. Thus, the issues took a national colour.

The Supreme Court called the additional solicitor general, appointed an amicus curiae (counsel to assist it) and invited suggestions from bar associations. In the past two years, all of them cooperated in bringing forward several proposals. The government did not take an adversary stand and agreed to the recommendations made by the amicus. It is another matter whether or not the suggestions, incorporated in the order, will be implemented.

The court noted that tribunals suffered from severe infrastructural constraints — most of them being run from rented, constricted premises, paying exorbitant rents and unsure of renewal of leases. With the agreement of the government, the court raised the minimum area for a tribunal from 5,000 to 7,200 sq ft.

The government has agreed before the court that more tribunals will be set up on the basis of the pendency of cases before the existing ones. The government has also promised to anticipate vacancies for the post of senior officers and fill them up as soon as they arise. Provision of accommodation for the staff will be given prime consideration. There is an “e-DRT” project to automate and improve the services by building information technology systems. This will be expedited.

The court wanted the government to give preference in appointments to those who have either legal experience or hold a degree in law. They will be trained through regular programmes to gain working knowledge of procedures followed by tribunals. The Supreme Court wanted the high courts to use their power of superintendence to ensure that tribunals worked “smoothly, efficiently and transparently”. If they don’t, the case may be taken up again.

These well-meaning recommendations could be adopted by other tribunals, too. However, the real hitch is the will of the government to implement them in letter and spirit. In practice, the government starves these tribunals of funds and personnel. On Tuesday, the Supreme Court heard a case to provide accommodation to green tribunal members. This is a symptom of a constant tussle over appointments that are often stymied by rival contenders among bureaucrats. Even within the panel, rivalry and mistrust between judicial members and civil servants, retired or on deputation, are not uncommon. It would take herculean efforts to pull the wheels of tribunals out of the present rut.

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First Published: Wed, January 30 2013. 00:45 IST