THE SUPREME Court on Monday quizzed the government over the enactment of a new law dealing with the tenure and criteria for selection of members of tribunals despite the court striking down some provisions dealing with the same in an earlier Ordinance.
Seeking to know why the government introduced the Tribunal Reforms Bill, 2021, Chief Justice N V Ramana told Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, “I don’t think any debate has taken place in Parliament. No reason has been given. We have absolutely no problem with Parliament making laws. Parliament has the right to make any law. But at least we must know what are the reasons for the government to introduce this Bill again after the striking down.”
Last week, Parliament passed the Tribunal Reforms Bill, 2021, which seeks to lay down terms for service and tenure of members of various tribunals. The new law contained the same provisions as the Tribunal Reforms (Rationalisation and Conditions of Service) Ordinance, 2021, which the Supreme Court struck down last month in a 2:1 verdict.
On Monday, the Supreme Court bench, also comprising Justices Surya Kant and Aniruddha Bose, pulled up the government for the delay in filling up vacancies in various tribunals and granted 10 more days for these to be filled up after the SG “assured… that appointments are underway”.
The court was hearing petitions against the central notification transferring the jurisdiction of Debt Recovery Tribunal (DRT), Jabalpur, to DRT, Lucknow, as there is no presiding officer in the former, and another seeking the setting up of the Goods and Services Appellate Tribunal.
On August 5, the apex court had expressed displeasure over the vacancies in various tribunals and asked the Centre to take a stand in a week, failing which, it warned, it would summon top officers.
On Monday, the SG told the bench that “after the last hearing, the process has commenced, some of the appointments are made. The remaining are in the process of being made”.
The CJI asked him to show one appointment that had been made, following which the SG said appointments have been made in the Central Administrative Tribunal (CAT). He said he had a word with the government in the morning and added, “We can come with substantial progress” if the matter is posted after two weeks.
But the bench did not appear satisfied and said it had in many previous judgments laid out how tribunals should function. The CJI went on to quote from the SC judgment that had struck down certain provisions of the Ordinance.
The CJI went on to say that he had not come across any reason being discussed for the new Bill. “Nothing is there,” he said, adding the only thing he saw was a newspaper report quoting the minister saying that the court has not struck down the Ordinance on constitutionality.
Wondering if “this was the debate and the reasons accorded in Parliament”, he said, “this is a serious issue. What are we to understand from this Bill and Act? Tribunals have to be continued or have to be closed?” The CJI clarified that “we are not saying you cannot make laws. You are entitled to make laws”.
Mehta replied that on the question of vacancies, efforts are on at the highest level to complete the process of filling them up. On the issue of the Bill, he said “ultimately, this is the wisdom of Parliament ”.
The CJI pointed out that the ministry might have prepared the note for introducing the Bill and asked, “Can you show us all that?”
The SG said it may not be right for him to respond immediately as it was Attorney General K K Venugopal who had been assisting the court in the matter since long.
The CJI said nothing stopped the government from making the appointments if it wanted.
As the SG repeated that appointments were being made, Justice Surya Kant said, “You are the best person to tell us this: whether you are going to make appointments within two weeks to the tribunals which are almost on the verge of becoming defunct?”
Added the CJI, “For one year, four months, whenever we ask, we are told by the ministry that it is under process, under process, under process. But that under process has no meaning. We will give you 10 days finally and we will hear the matter and let’s hope you will clear appointments as much as possible by then.”
The court also made it clear the pendency of the proceedings will not come in the way of making the appointments in tribunals.