On Friday, the Supreme Court rapped the government for not filling up vacancies of presiding officers across 15 major tribunals and asked it to inform the court whether it needed the tribunals or not.
Terming non-filling of vacancies at various tribunals a “very sorry state of affairs”, the court asked the Centre to apprise it within ten days about the steps taken and said it suspects “some lobbies have been working” in this regard.
“We must know a clear stand on continuation of tribunals or closing of tribunals. It appears that bureaucracy does not want these tribunals,” said a bench comprising Chief Justice N V Ramana and Justice Surya Kant.
The top court was ready with all the details of pending vacancies, provided by the apex court's registry in 15 quasi-judicial bodies such as Debt Recovery Tribunals (DRTs), DRAT, Securities Appellate Tribunal, TDSAT, NCLT and NCLAT.
There are 19 vacant positions of presiding officers or the chairman in these tribunals and besides them, 110 and 111 posts of judicial and technical members respectively are vacant, the bench said, adding that this cannot be allowed to continue. The bench said it may summon the “top officials” to give reasons for not appointing peoples in these quasi-judicial bodies. “We expect in a week's time you will take a call and apprise us. Otherwise, we are very serious, we are going to force the top officers to appear and give reasons. Please do not invite such a situation,” the bench observed. The top court, in a hearing conducted through video conferencing, also issued a notice on a PIL filed by lawyer and activist Amit Sahni seeking constitution of the National and Regional GST Tribunal. It was irked over the fact that the appellate tribunal as provided under the law on GST has not been set up even after the law came into force almost four years ago. “
“The CGST act came into force about four years back, you have been unable to create any appellate tribunal at all," the bench said.
“Our Registry has provided the information that as many as 15 tribunals have been created. There are no chairpersons,” CJI Ramana observed, adding that in the National Company Law Tribunal, there are vacancies of judicial and technical members. The CJI said that he and Justice Surya Kant are both members of the selection panel and had recommended names in May 2020. The bench said many posts are vacant in AFT, NGT and Railways Claim Tribunal and no steps seem to be taken to fill these vacancies and termed it as the “very sorry state of affairs”. “This is the scenario in Tribunals. We do not know what the stand of the Government is. You have to get a response, if they want to continue these Tribunals,” the bench said. "We have our own suspicion, some lobbies have been working to not fill” these vacancies, it added. Appointments to these tribunals can be made “subject to pending litigations”, but the litigants cannot be left remediless, the bench said.
“If you don't want Tribunals let them go to the high courts and if you want Tribunals then fill up vacancies,” it added. Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, appearing for the Centre, sought some time to apprise the court on this matter and said there were some issues relating to the tenure and manner of appointment.
The bench said tribunals are the creations of the statutes and they provide their composition and procedures. Selection panels, mostly presided over by apex court judges, have recommended names for appointments to tribunals and many issues can be dealt with after the appointments, it said. One of the pleas pertained to the Centre's decision to transfer and attach the jurisdiction of the Debt Recovery Tribunal, Jabalpur to Debt Recovery Tribunal, Lucknow in the absence of availability of presiding officer at DRT Jabalpur.
On this aspect, the law officer said that even the DRT at Lucknow is working through virtual mode. Senior advocate Nidhesh Gupta referred to the bills on tribunals being discussed in Parliament and alleged that it was against the apex court's judgement on the issue.
“We cannot stop the government from passing legislation and the government cannot stop us from passing orders...This is the duty of both institutions,” the bench said.
(With inputs from PTI)