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The growing case for tribunal reform

The court system is now getting congested by cases from tribunals

Updated: September 23, 2016 9:07 AM
Administrative tribunals were originally set up to provide specialised justice delivery and to reduce the burden of caseloads on regular courts. (Source: IE) Administrative tribunals were originally set up to provide specialised justice delivery and to reduce the burden of caseloads on regular courts. (Source: IE)

The growing number of tribunals in India and the problems associated with their functioning has prompted the government to re-think the role of tribunalisation in the dispensation of justice. The law ministry has recently stated that several of the 36 central tribunals do not function to optimum capacity. According to the ministry, many tribunals also do not have adequate infrastructure to work smoothly and perform the functions originally envisioned for them. In August 2016, the Supreme Court weighed in on the issue too, when a bench of Justices Anil R Dave and Adarsh K Goel, hearing an appeal from the Appellate Tribunal for Electricity (APTEL) in the matter of Gujarat Urja Vikas Nigam Ltd versus Essar Power Ltd, commented on the inherent difficulty for many litigants in accessing justice as benches of some tribunals were located only in New Delhi. Additionally, the Supreme Court has asked the Law Commission to examine various aspects of working of tribunals, and what changes are required in the statutory framework governing them.

According to the ministry, many tribunals also do not have adequate infrastructure to work smoothly and perform the functions originally envisioned for them. In August 2016, the Supreme Court weighed in on the issue too, when a bench of Justices Anil R Dave and Adarsh K Goel, hearing an appeal from the Appellate Tribunal for Electricity (APTEL) in the matter of Gujarat Urja Vikas Nigam Ltd versus Essar Power Ltd, commented on the inherent difficulty for many litigants in accessing justice as benches of some tribunals were located only in New Delhi. Additionally, the Supreme Court has asked the Law Commission to examine various aspects of working of tribunals, and what changes are required in the statutory framework governing them.

Additionally, the Supreme Court has asked the Law Commission to examine various aspects of working of tribunals, and what changes are required in the statutory framework governing them.
Administrative tribunals were originally set up to provide specialised justice delivery and to reduce the burden of caseloads on regular courts. However, appeals from tribunals have inevitably managed to enter the mainstream judicial system. After the Supreme Court’s decision in L Chandra Kumar versus Union of India in 1997, appeals from tribunals began reaching the High Court. The legislations creating tribunals such as APTEL and Armed Forces Tribunal (AFT), among many others, also provide for direct appeals to the Supreme Court.

The result is that the court system is now getting congested by cases from tribunals. For example, a large proportion of the civil appeals in the Supreme Court are appeals filed against orders of tribunals. These appeals, in turn, remain pending in the Supreme Court for years, leading one to speculate whether tribunals are actually ensuring specialised and speedy justice delivery.

Some tribunals are also facing serious problems of inadequate workforce. According to recent news reports, work in most benches of the AFT has stopped because judicial members have not been appointed. Out of 17 benches, only five are currently functioning, among which the Chandigarh Bench works with only one judicial member of the sanctioned three.

Appointments to tribunals are usually under the control of the executive. Not only does the government identify and appoint the members of the tribunals, but it also determines and makes appropriate staffing hires. This is problematic because often there is a lack of understanding of the staffing requirements in tribunals. Arguably, tribunals themselves are better positioned to gauge their own administrative requirements, but usually, lack the power to create or sanction posts. For instance, the Telecom Disputes Settlement and Appellate Tribunal (TDSAT) has been understaffed for the past decade, because the government has not created new posts.

Over the years, reforms are periodically suggested regarding tribunals, such as changes recommended to the Armed Forces Tribunal Act made by the Standing Committee on Defence in 2012. However, these recommendations rarely see the light of day.

To complicate the understanding of tribunals, there is a lack of information available on the functioning of tribunals. Websites are routinely non-existent, unresponsive or not updated. For instance, there is no information about the National Highways Tribunals or their decisions; the website of the ministry of labour and employment, which provides information on the labour-cum-industrial-dispute tribunals, contains dead links to access orders and judgments.

In this information void, not only is it impossible for the public to know how these tribunals work, even new members of tribunals may be unable to understand the issues at their workplaces. There is an immediate need to address this gap in information regarding the working of tribunals.

Tribunalisation and its associated challenges are by no means unique to India. The United Kingdom, set up the Legatt Committee to study the country’s tribunals, when it acknowledged that the tribunal system needed to be formalised and institutionalised. The committee, among other things, described a network of different tribunals administered by different government departments, each of which had been created by individual pieces of primary legislation, but without any overarching framework. The Legatt report recommended that tribunals should be brought together into a single system, administered by a new Tribunals Service in what was then the Lord

Chancellor’s Department.

India can learn much from this system, at the very least, to address the questions of membership and staffing of tribunals. Administrative and institutional autonomy will also go a long way to enable tribunals in carrying out their statutory mandates. A re-think is also needed on the location of benches of certain tribunals. This must be driven by empirical studies focussing on working of the tribunals to better understand their problem areas. Setting the pace for these changes is the need of the hour to ensure that tribunals perform their roles in ensuring the speedy and efficient disposal of justice.

The author is research fellow, Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy

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