Why Finance Bill is changing functions, existence of tribunals

One of the most striking features of the Finance Bill this year is the number of amendments the government has made to the Bill after it was presented in Lok Sabha on the day of the Union Budget.

One of the most striking features of the Finance Bill this year is the number of amendments the government has made to the Bill after it was presented in Lok Sabha on the day of the Union Budget. Out of all these amendments, the one that did not relate to taxation-namely, the decision to merge several administrative tribunals and assume power to control the appointment of the heads of such quasi-judicial bodies-stood apart.

"Certain Tribunals are proposed to be replaced, and their functions are proposed to be taken over by existing Tribunals under other Acts. The rationale behind replacing certain Tribunals is unclear," says a quick analysis on the amended proposals, carried out by PRS Legislative Research, a think tank that provides comprehensive and credible resource base to Parliament-specific data. PRS also points out that allowing the Executive to determine appointment, reappointment and removal of members-as proposed in the Bill-could affect the independent functioning of the tribunals. "There would be conflict of interest if the government were to be a litigant before a Tribunal, as well as determine appointment of its members," it warns.

The move, predictably, has been criticised by the Opposition parties. The ruling party and the government, however, defended the decision by hailing it as a progressive development.

Whatever be the motive, there is no doubt that there has been a call for rationalising the functioning and existence of India's various tribunals. Earlier too, on February 26, 2015, a Parliamentary panel sought sweeping reforms in the functioning and structure of the country's tribunals. Citing the high pendency level of cases in many of the key tribunals (Income Tax Appellate Tribunal had 99,349 cases pending as on December 31, 2014), the panel observed that the pendency in those tribunals "defeated the purpose for which those tribunals have been created as parallel to High Courts".

"Some of the Tribunals, i.e., National Highway Tribunals, Cyber Appellate Tribunal and Airport Economic Regulatory Appellate Authority are dysfunctional due to vacancies. The post of Presiding Officer in all eight Benches of National Highway Tribunal (which is a single-member Bench) located at Chandigarh, Lucknow, Kolkata, Mumbai, Jabalpur, Bengaluru, Chennai and Guwahati are lying vacant. The post of Presiding Officer in Cyber Appellate Tribunal is vacant since July 2011. Therefore, it cannot function in the absence of its Chairperson in view of Section 49 of the Information Technology Act, 2000. The Competition Appellate Tribunal was assigned additional charge of the Airport Economic Regulatory Appellate Authority since its inception till August 20, 2014. Now it is dysfunctional," the panel had observed.

The committee concluded that "most of these Tribunals have not been provided with adequate residential accommodations, proper office infrastructure or adequate supporting staff; many of the posts of those bodies are lying vacant and also cases are mounting in those bodies and the purpose for which those bodies were created have been defeated".

The panel wanted the government to provide the necessary infrastructure, and human and financial resources to the tribunals for speedy delivery of justice. It also endorsed the view of the Law Commission of India and asked to create a National Tribunals Commission to oversee the selection process, eligibility criteria for appointment, introduction of common criteria for removal of Chairman and Members, and fulfilling of infrastructural and financial requirements.

The decision to reshuffle some of these tribunals, with a provision to include more in future, should be seen in this context. If the changes do not result in improving the autonomy and efficiency of the tribunals, there is room for severe criticism. But it is perhaps too early to take that call.