In a recent judgement (Judgement on Feb 23 - Baldev Singh and Ors. V. State of Punjab), the Supreme Court reduced the sentence of three persons convicted of rape from 10 years to 3 and a half years, and also asked the three convicts to pay a fine of Rs 50,000 each to the victim. In reducing the sentence, the court drew from the provision in S. 376 (punishment for rape) of the Indian Penal Code which allows the court to reduce the sentence for "adequate and special reasons". There have been a number of past cases where the Supreme Court has reversed High Court decisions reducing sentences under this provision for not giving suitable reasons. In 2007, the Supreme Court struck down a decision of the Karnataka High Court which had reduced the sentence of a convicted rapist to 3 and a half years. The High Court had stated that the sentence should be reduced since the accused was "a young boy of 18 years belonging to Vaddara Community and Illiterate". The Supreme Court stated that there is a legislative mandate to impose a sentence for not less than 10 years. Only in exceptional cases, for "adequate and special reasons" can a sentence less than 10 years be imposed. It overturned the Karnataka High Court decision saying that there was an "absence of any reason which could have been treated as "special and adequate reason"". In Baldev Singh's case, the Supreme Court said: 1. The fact that the incident is an old one (the incident took place in 1997) is a circumstance which fits into "adequate and special reasons" for reducing a sentence. 2. The parties have entered into a compromise among themselves. The issue is whether this judgement has gone beyond the legislative mandate, and whether it has adhered to the principles laid down by earlier decisions of the Supreme Court. In 2007, the Supreme Court itself stated that for a crime like rape, strong reasons have to be given to reduce the sentence envisaged by the legislature. Moreover, the provision does not envisage the settlement of a crime by payment of compensation to the victim of a crime. A criminal act is seen in law as a crime against the whole of society (which is why the state's prosecution agency, and not the victim, goes to court against alleged criminals). Therefore, criminal actions such as rape (or murder, robbery, kidnapping etc.) cannot be "settled" by the payment of compensation under the Indian Penal Code. In this light, it should be interesting to see whether the State files an appeal against this judgement.
Tribunals function as a parallel mechanism to the traditional court system. Tribunals were established for two main reasons - allowing for specialised subject knowledge in disputes on technical matters and reducing the burden on the court system. In India, some tribunals are at the level of subordinate courts with appeals lying with the High Court, while some others are at the level of High Courts with appeals lying with the Supreme Court. In 1986, the Supreme Court ruled that Parliament may create an alternative to High Courts provided that they have the same efficacy as the High Courts. For an overview of the tribunal system in India, see our note here.
In April 2021, the central government promulgated an Ordinance, which specified provisions related to the composition of the search-cum-selection committees for the selection of members of 15 Tribunals, and the term of office for members. Further, it empowered the central government to notify qualifications and other terms and conditions of service (such as salaries) for the Chairperson and members of these tribunals. In July 2021, the Supreme Court struck down certain provisions of the Ordinance (such as the provision specifying a four-year term for members) stating that these impinged on the independence of the judiciary from the government. In several earlier judgements, the Supreme Court has laid out guidelines for the composition of Tribunals and service conditions to ensure that these Tribunals have the same level of independence from the Executive as the High Courts they replace.
However, Parliament passed the Tribunals Reforms Bill, 2021 in August 2021, which is almost identical to the April Ordinance and includes the provisions which had been struck down. This Act has been challenged in the Supreme Court. For a PRS analysis of the Bill, please see here.
On 16th September 2021, the central government notified The Tribunal (Conditions of Service) Rules, 2021 under the Tribunals Reforms Act, 2021. A couple of the provisions under these Rules may contravene principles laid out by the Supreme Court:
Appointment of the Administrative Member of the Central Administrative Tribunal as the Chairman
In case of the Central Administrative Tribunal (CAT), the Rules specify that a person with at least three years of experience as the Judicial Member or Administrative Member may be appointed as the Chairman. This may violate the principles laid down by the past Supreme Court judgements.
The CAT supplants High Courts. In 1986, the Supreme Court stated that if an administrative tribunal supplants the High Courts, the office of the Chairman of the tribunal should be equated with that of the Chief Justice of the High Court. Therefore, the Chairman of the tribunal must be a current or former High Court Judge. Further, in 2019, the Supreme Court stated – “the knowledge, training, and experience of members or presiding officers of a tribunal must mirror, as far as possible, that of the Court it seeks to substitute”.
The Administrative Member of the CAT may be a person who has been an Additional Secretary to the central government or a central government officer with pay at least that of the Additional Secretary. Hence, the Administrative Member may not have the required judicial experience for appointment as the Chairman of CAT.
Leave Sanctioning Authority
The Rules specify that the central government will be the leave sanctioning authority for the Chairperson of tribunals, and Members (in case of absence of the Chairperson). In 2014, the Supreme Court specified that the central government (Executive) should not have any administrative involvement with the members of the tribunal as it may influence the independence and fairness of the tribunal members. In addition, it had observed that the Executive may be a litigant party and its involvement in administrative matters of tribunals may influence the fairness of the adjudication process. In judgements in 1997 and 2014, the Supreme Court recommended that the administration of all Tribunals should be under a nodal ministry such as the Law Ministry, and not the respective administrative ministry. In 2020, it recommended setting up of a National Tribunals Commission to supervise appointments and administration of Tribunals. The Rules are not in consonance with these recommendations.