The Enforcement of Security Interest and Recovery of Debts Laws and Miscellaneous Provisions (Amendment) Bill, 2016 is listed for discussion in Rajya Sabha today.[i] The Bill aims to expeditiously resolve cases of debt recovery by making amendments to four laws, including the (i) Recovery of Debts Due to Banks and Financial Institutions Act, 1993, and (ii) the Securitisation and Reconstruction of Financial Assets and Enforcement of Security Interest Act, 2002. Recovery of Debts Due to Banks and Financial Institutions Act, 1993 The 1993 Act created Debt Recovery Tribunals (DRTS) to adjudicated debt recovery cases. This was done to move cases out of civil courts, with the idea of reducing time taken for debt recovery, and for providing technical expertise. This was aimed at assisting banks and financial institutions in recovering outstanding debt from defaulters. Over the years, it has been observed that the DRTs do not comply with the stipulated time frame of resolving disputes within six months. This has resulted in delays in disposal, and a high pendency of cases before the DRTs. Between March 2013 and December 2015, the number of pending cases before the DRTs increased from 43,000 to 70,000. With an average disposal rate of 10,000 cases per year, it is estimated that these DRTs will take about six to seven years to clear the existing backlog of cases.[ii] Experts have also observed that the DRT officers, responsible for debt recovery, lack experience in dealing with such cases. Further, these officers are not adequately trained to adjudicate debt-related matters.[iii] The 2016 Bill proposes to increase the retirement age of Presiding Officers of DRTs, and allows for their reappointment. This will allow the existing DRT officers to serve for longer periods of time. However, such a move may have limited impact in expanding the pool of officers in the DRTs. The 2016 Bill also has a provision which allows Presiding Officers of tribunals, established under other laws, to head DRTs. Currently, there are various specialised tribunals functioning in the country, like the Securities Appellate Tribunal, the National Company Law Tribunal, and theNational Green Tribunal. It remains to be seen if the skills brought in by officers of these tribunals will mirror the specialisation required for adjudicating debt-related matters. Further, the 1993 Act provides that banks and financial institutions must file cases in those DRTs that have jurisdiction over the defendant’s area of residence or business. In addition, the Bill allows cases to be filed in DRTs having jurisdiction over the bank branch where the debt is due. The Bill also provides that certain procedures, such as presentation of claims by parties and issue of summons by DRTs, can now be undertaken in electronic form (such as filing them on the DRT website). Securitisation and Reconstruction of Financial Assets and Enforcement of Security Interest Act, 2002 The 2002 Act allows secured creditors (lenders whose loans are backed by a security) to take possession over a collateral security if the debtor defaults in repayment. This allows creditors to sell the collateral security and recover the outstanding debt without the intervention of a court or a tribunal. This takeover of collateral security is done with the assistance of the District Magistrate (DM), having jurisdiction over the security. Experts have noted that the absence of a time-limit for the DM to dispose such applications has resulted in delays.[iv] The 2016 Bill proposes to introduce a 30-day time limit within which the DM must pass an order for the takeover of a security. Under certain circumstances, this time-limit may be extended to 60 days. The 2002 Act also regulates the establishment and functioning of Asset Reconstruction Companies (ARCs). ARCs purchase Non-Performing Assets (NPAs) from banks at a discount. This allows banks to recover partial payment for an outstanding loan account, thereby helping them maintain cash flow and liquidity. The functioning of ARCs has been explained in Figure 1. It has been observed that the setting up of ARCs, along with the use out-of-court systems to take possession of the collateral security, has created an environment conducive to lending.[iii] However, a few concerns related to the functioning of ARCs have been expressed over the years. These concerns include a limited number of buyers and capital entering the ARC business, and high transaction costs involved in the transfer of assets in favour of these companies due to the levy of stamp duty.[iii] In this regard, the Bill proposes to exempt the payment of stamp duty on transfer of financial assets in favour of ARCs. This benefit will not be applicable if the asset has been transferred for purposes other than securitisation or reconstruction (such as for the ARCs own use or investment). Consequently, the Bill amends the Indian Stamp Act, 1899. The Bill also provides greater powers to the Reserve Bank of India to regulate ARCs. This includes the power to carry out audits and inspections either on its own, or through specialised agencies. With the passage of the Bankruptcy Code in May 2016, a complete overhaul of the debt recovery proceedings was envisaged. The Code allows creditors to collectively take action against a defaulting debtor, and complete this process within a period of 180 days. During the process, the creditors may choose to revive a company by changing the repayment schedule of outstanding loans, or decide to sell it off for recovering their dues. While the Bankruptcy Code provides for collective action of creditors, the proposed amendments to the SARFAESI and DRT Acts seek to streamline the processes of creditors individually taking action against the defaulting debtor. The impact of these changes on debt recovery scenario in the country, and the issue of rising NPAs will only become clear in due course of time. [i] Enforcement of Security Interest and Recovery of Debts Laws and Miscellaneous Provisions (Amendment) Bill, 2016, http://www.prsindia.org/administrator/uploads/media/Enforcement%20of%20Security/Enforcement%20of%20Security%20Bill,%202016.pdf. [ii] Unstarred Question No. 1570, Lok Sabha, Ministry of Finance, Answered on March 4, 2016. [iii] ‘A Hundred Small Steps’, Report of the Committee on Financial Sector Reforms, Planning Commission, September 2008, http://planningcommission.nic.in/reports/genrep/rep_fr/cfsr_all.pdf. [iv] Financial Sector Legislative Reforms Commission, March 2013, http://finmin.nic.in/fslrc/fslrc_report_vol1.pdf.
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.