The Tribunal Reforms Bill, 2021

On February 13, 2021, the Tribunals Reforms (Rationalization and Conditions of Service) Bill, 2021 was tabled in the Lok Sabha. It proposes that certain existing appellate bodies be dissolved and their functions be transferred to other existing judicial organizations. It also proposes including provisions in the Act itself regarding the makeup of selection committees and terms of tenure. In April 2021, an Ordinance with identical provisions was passed. The Ordinance was challenged in the Supreme Court because it did not follow previous Supreme Court decisions on tribunals. Certain portions of the Ordinance were struck down by the Court in July 2021.

Main highlights of the Bill

The Bill mainly highlights at dissolving certain current appellate organizations, and their functions are transferred to other existing judicial bodies. The Chairperson and members of a Tribunal will serve for four years, with a maximum age of seventy years for the Chairperson and sixty-seven years for the other members. To be eligible for appointment as a chairperson or member, a person must be at least 50 years old, according to the Bill.

The key issues

The Bill and Ordinance remove several current appellate bodies and transfer their powers to High Courts, potentially lengthening the time it takes to resolve a case. According to the 2021 Bill’s Statement of Objects and Reasons, evidence from the previous three years demonstrates that the introduction of certain tribunals has not resulted in faster adjudication, and that such tribunals add significant expense to the exchequer. These modifications would also address the issue of a lack of support people and infrastructure in such courts. However, because most Heavy Courts already have a high backlog of cases, shifting duties of an appellate body to a High Court may result in an increase in case disposition time.

The Chairperson and members will serve for four years, according to the Bill and the Ordinance. The Supreme Court ruled down these portions of the Ordinance on July 14, 2021. According to the Court, establishing a four-year term of office breaches the principles of separation of powers, judiciary independence, rule of law, and equality before the law. Over the years, the Supreme Court has stated that short-term tribunal members, together with re-appointment rules, increase the Executive’s power and control over the court. It also inhibits qualified applicants from applying for such posts because they may be unable to leave their secure jobs to serve as a member for a limited time. The court also stated that tenure security and service conditions are essential components of judicial independence. The Chairperson and other members must serve for a period of five years, according to the Supreme Court (subject to a maximum age limit of 70 years for the Chairperson and 67 years for other members).

A person must be at least 50 years old to be appointed as a member of a tribunal, according to the Bill and the Ordinance. This is in violation of previous Supreme Court rulings and was also overturned by the Court in July 2021. While reviewing the Ordinance in 2021, the Supreme Court echoed previous decisions that emphasized the need of recruiting members at a young age. In previous decisions, the Supreme Court (2020) has said that advocates having at least 10 years of relevant experience, which is the minimum requirement for a High Court judge, must be allowed to be nominated as judicial members. A 50-year-old minimum age limit may prevent such people from being nominated to the panel.

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