A Bill to amend the Lokpal and Lokayuktas Act, 2013 was introduced and passed in Lok Sabha yesterday. The Bill makes amendments in relation to the declaration of assets of public servants, and will apply retrospectively. Declaration of assets under the Lokpal Act, 2013 The Lokpal Act, 2013 provides for a mechanism to inquire into corruption related allegations against public servants. The Act defines public servants to include the Prime Minister, Union Ministers, Members of Parliament, central government and Public Sector Undertakings employees, and trustees and officials of NGOs that receive foreign contribution above Rs 10 lakhs a year, and those getting a certain amount of government funding. [A June 2016 notification set this amount at Rs. 1 crore.] The Lokpal Act mandates public servants to declare their assets and liabilities, and that of their spouses and dependent children. Such declarations must be filed by July 31st every year. They must also be published on the website of the Ministry by August 31st. 2014 amendments proposed to the Lokpal Act In December 2014, a Bill to amend the 2013 Act was introduced in Lok Sabha. Among other things, the Bill sought to modify the provision related to declaration of assets by public servants. The Bill required that the public servant’s declaration contain information of all his assets, including: (i) movable and immovable property owned, inherited, acquired, or held on lease in his or another’s name; and (ii) debts and liabilities incurred directly or indirectly by him. The Bill also said that declaration requirements for public servants under the Representation of the People Act, 1951 (for MPs), All India Services Act, 1951 (for senior civil servants), etc. would also apply. The Standing Committee that examined this Bill, in 2015, had recommended that the public servants should declare the assets and liabilities to their Competent Authority. For example, for an MP, the competent authority would be the Speaker of Lok Sabha or Chairman of Rajya Sabha. Such declarations should then be forwarded to the Lokpal to keep in a fiduciary capacity. Both these authorities would be competent to review the returns filed by the public servants. In light of such double scrutiny, the Committee recommended that public disclosure of such assets and liabilities would not be necessary. Further, the Committee also noted that family members of public servants are not obliged to disclose assets acquired through their own income. These disclosures may be in violation of Article 21 (right to privacy) or 14 (right to equality) of the Constitution. However, the public servant must declare assets and liabilities of his dependents, and those acquired by him in the name of another. This Bill is currently pending in Lok Sabha. The 2016 Bill and its position on declaration of assets The Amendment Bill, that was introduced and passed by Lok Sabha yesterday, replaces the provision under the Lokpal Act, 2013 related to the declaration of assets and liabilities by public servants. While the new provision also mandates public servants to declare their assets and liabilities, it does not specify the manner of such declaration. The Bill states that the form and manner of such declarations to be made by public servants will be prescribed by the central government. Therefore, if passed by Parliament, the effect of the amendments will be the following:
These implications will apply only if the Bill is passed by Rajya Sabha and gets the President’s assent before July 31, 2016.
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.