The top court, hearing a clutch of petitions challenging the constitutional validity of the Finance Act 2017 and the rules under it to regulate issue like appointment and tenure of members of tribunals, said that though it would deal with this aspect later, the issue of vacancies have to be addressed on an urgent basis as tribunals have to be “manned”.
A bench headed by Chief Justice Dipak Misra asked Attorney General K K Venugopal, representing the Centre, and senior lawyers like Arvind Datar and C A Sundaram, appearing for those opposed to the new Act, to sit together and make an “interim arrangement” to deal with appointments in tribunals in view of the fact that the new law and the Rules are under challenge before it.
The bench, also comprising Justices A M Khanwilkar and D Y Chandrachud, said, “The petitions are pending here. But, tribunals have to be manned. We have to find an interim solution”.
The bench posted the matters on February 2 when it may finalise the interim arrangement to deal with the appointments till it finally decides on the validity of the new law and the rules, which govern the affairs of the panels including the National Green Tribunal (NGT) and the Central Administrative Tribunal (CAT).
During the hearing, the counsel for petitioners, including Congress leader Jairam Ramesh and NGO Social Action for Forest and Environment, said the issue was whether Parliament can delegate its rule-making powers to the executive and can those rules undermine the power of judiciary in making appointments to the tribunals.
Senior advocate Arvind Datar, appearing as amicus curiae, said that earlier there used to be three judicial and two executive members in the selection committees, meant for chosing presiding officers and members to the tribunals, but now the position has been reversed and the executive has got more say in the selection.
Datar said the tenure of the Chairperson appointed to the Tribunals should be extended to five years instead of three years now.
“The committee appointing judicial members to tribunals like NGT and other tribunals should comprise only two members from the Union Government, instead of the present rule allowing three members from Centre and two members from judicial background,” he said.
The Finance Act and the rules framed are striking at the root of independence of quasi-judicial bodies, he said.
In the same vein, another lawyer said “the tribunals will now be controlled by the executive.”
Earlier, the apex court had directed the Centre to file amended draft rules, to be framed under the 2017 Finance Act which would deal with appointment and service conditions of judicial and non-judicial members of as many as 19 tribunals including the NGT and the CAT.
The court had asked Venugopal that the draft amended Tribunal, Appellate and other Authorities (Qualifications, Experience and other conditions of Service of Members) Rules, 2017, which would govern the procedure of appointment, removal and service conditions of chairperson and members of tribunals, be filed before it.
Several individuals and organisations have moved the apex court challenging the constitutional validity of the 2017 Finance Act and the rules alleging that these would destroy independent functioning of tribunals as they give primacy to the executive in deciding the constitution, qualifications of members, their appointments and removal from tribunals.
The new law and rules provide that the appointment committees, to be headed by the CJI or his nominees, will have more members from the Executive and hence, undermined the judicial independence of tribunals and impinged upon the doctrine of separation of powers, the petitions alleged.
Earlier, the apex court had issued notices on petitions challenging the constitutional validity of the 2017 law and rules framed under the statute.
The Finance Act, which came into effect from April 1 last year, led to framing of the Rules and they allegedly gave “unbridled” powers to the Executive to decide Constitution, qualifications of members, their appointments and removal etc, they said.
One of the petitions said the alterations brought about by the Finance Act, would weaken functioning of tribunals including the NGT and curtail their powers.
It claimed that the tribunal rules have severely diluted the minimum qualifications for appointment of members to the NGT, including the chairperson and judicial members.
It claimed that there was a “clear and present danger of persons being appointed as the chairperson/judicial members of the NGT, who have no judicial or even legal training and experience” and of those without significant technical and scientific knowledge being appointed as expert members, which violated the guidelines laid down by the apex court