New Delhi: In a large-scale reform of tribunals, the government on Tuesday sought to reduce the number of these quasi-judicial bodies and bring parity in the service conditions of their officials.
“There will be uniformity in service conditions and pay structure of all those retired judges who are being appointed in all these tribunals. Where there is less work and there are two-three tribunals, that will now be done by one," finance minister Arun Jaitley said in Parliament, moving the amendments as part of the Finance Bill 2017.
Among the better known tribunals, the Competition Appellate Tribunal will now be merged with the National Company Law Appellate Tribunal. The Cyber Appellate Tribunal and the Airports Economic Regulatory Authority Appellate Tribunal will be merged with the Telecom Disputes Settlement and Appellate Tribunal. The Industrial Tribunal is to also perform the functions of the Employees’ Provident Funds Appellate Tribunal. And the Copyright Board will be merged with the Intellectual Property Appellate Board.
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The amendments under the Finance Bill, which is being discussed in Lok Sabha, will change several laws and allow the government to set criteria for appointment and removal of chairperson, vice-chairperson and other members of the tribunals, and decide on their terms of service.
All told, eight tribunals will be merged into other existing tribunals.
“Tribunals perform an exceedingly important function in the current system of justice delivery. They have, however, over the course of the past few years, been shown to suffer from some of the same problems the regular judiciary has in terms of being slow and non-specialized. Some tribunals have also been fairly redundant in terms of not having any case load," said Arghya Sengupta, founder and research director of think tank Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy. Vidhi assisted the law ministry in the process of streamlining tribunals.
“This is a very important first step towards administrative streamlining of tribunals. Hopefully, the next step will be that there is appointments reform also, as to how members should be appointed."
Not everyone thinks it is a good idea, though. “I would feel quite worried about this proposal as a competition lawyer since these are really heavy matters and without having a dedicated tribunal with expertise in the field, these matters could go into limbo which could potentially prejudice the regime. I would really hope there is a dedicated bench to deal with the competition regime," said Vaibhav Gaggar, a lawyer who deals extensively with competition law matters, speaking on the merger of COMPAT with NCLAT.
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Sengupta admitted that while the amendments will not ensure specialization, this is probably an issue that can be dealt with in “phase two" of reforming the tribunals.
The amendments to the Finance Bill, in turn, provide for amendments to the Securities and Exchange Board of India Act, Consumer Protection Act, Administrative Tribunals Act, Income Tax Act, Cinematograph Act, Customs Act, Recovery of Debts Due to Banks and Financial Institutions Act, Electricity Act, Armed Forces Tribunal Act 2007 and the National Green Tribunal Act 2010 to bring the pay, qualifications, appointment, term of service, resignation, removal and terms and conditions of service under the Finance Act, Section 179.
The government began the process of merging tribunals earlier, with NCLT and its appellate body subsuming within them the board for industrial and financial reconstruction, its appellate authority and the company law board. It also introduced one permanent tribunal for interstate water disputes by merging existing ad-hoc bodies.
The government’s move follows a February 2015 report of a parliamentary standing committee that noted the absence of uniformity in the conditions of service of tribunals. The report also highlighted large pendencies, and the lack of adequate infrastructure.
The report had recommended creation of a National Tribunals Commission to oversee eligibility criteria and other financial concerns such as salaries. The bill leaves the decision to the government to make rules as of now.