The Supreme Court passed its judgment in General Officer Commanding (Army) vs. CBI on May 01, 2012. The case addressed the issue of need for sanction to prosecute Army officers under the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA). The case dealt with two instances of alleged fake encounters. Five people were killed by the Army in Assam in a counter insurgency operation in 1994. Another five people were killed in Jammu and Kashmir in March, 2000 in an encounter. In both cases, it was alleged that the Army officers had staged fake encounters. In both instances, the CBI was directed to investigate the matter. CBI claimed that the people who were killed were indeed victims of fake encounters. The CBI moved the court to initiate prosecution against the accused Army officers. The officers claimed that they could only be prosecuted with the prior sanction (permission) of the central government. The officers relied on provisions of the AFSPA,1958 and the Armed Forces J & K (Special Powers) Act, 1990 to support their claim. (See Notes for the relevant clauses) These provide that legal proceedings cannot be instituted against an officer unless sanction is granted by the central government. It must be noted that Army officers can be tried either before criminal courts or through court-martial (as prescribed under Sections 125 of the Army Act, 1950). The Army officers had appealed that both procedures require prior sanction of the government. The judgment touches upon various issues. Some of these have been discussed in more detail below:
Is prior sanction required to prosecute army officers for 'any' act committed in the line of duty? The judgment reiterated an earlier ruling. It held that sanction would not be required in 'all' cases to prosecute an official. The officer only enjoys immunity from prosecution in cases when he has ‘acted in exercise of powers conferred under the Act’. There should be 'reasonable nexus' between the action and the duties of the official. The Court cited the following example to highlight this point: If in a raid, an officer is attacked and he retaliates, his actions can be linked to a 'lawful discharge of duty'. Even if there were some miscalculations in the retaliation, his actions cannot be labeled to have some personal motive. The Court held that the AFSPA, or the Armed Forces (J&K) Special Powers Act, empowers the central government to ascertain if an action is 'reasonably connected with the discharge of official duty' and is not a misuse of authority. The courts have no jurisdiction in the matter. In making a decision, the government must make an objective assessment of the exigencies leading to the officer’s actions. At what stage is sanction required? The Court ruled that under the AFSPA, or the Armed Forces (J&K) Special Powers Act, sanction is mandatory. But, the need to seek sanction would only arise at the time of cognizance of the offence. Cognizance is the stage when the prosecution begins. Sanction is therefore not required during investigation. Is sanction required for court-martial? The Court ruled that there is no requirement of sanction under the Army Act, 1950. Hence, if the Army chooses, it can prosecute the accused through court-martial instead of going through the criminal court. The Court noted that the case had been delayed for over a decade and prescribed a time bound course of action. It asked the Army to decide on either of the two options - court martial or criminal court - within the next eight weeks. If the Army decides on proceedings before the criminal court, the government will have three months to determine to grant or withhold sanction. Notes Section 6 of the AFSPA, 1958: "6. Protection to persons acting under Act – No prosecution, suit or other legal proceeding shall be instituted, except with the previous sanction of the Central Government, against any person in respect of anything done or purported to be done in exercise of the powers conferred by this Act." Section 7 of the Armed Forces (J&K) Special Powers Act, 1990: "7. Protection of persons acting in good faith under this Act. No prosecution, suit or other legal proceeding shall be instituted, except with the previous sanction of the Central Government, against any person in respect of anything done or purported to be done in exercise of the powers conferred by this Act."
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.