The Tribunals Reforms Bill, 2021, in the context of the recent Supreme Court judgement

The Tribunals Reforms Bill, 2021 was introduced in Lok Sabha today.  It seeks to dissolve certain existing appellate bodies and transfer their functions (such as adjudication of appeals) to existing judicial bodies (mainly high courts) (see Table 1).  It also amends the Finance Act, 2017, to bring certain provisions (such as qualifications, appointments, term of office, salaries and allowances of tribunal members) under the purview of the Bill.  Currently, these provisions are notified through Rules under the Finance Act, 2017.   

Note that the 2017 Act reorganised the Indian tribunal system to ensure uniformity in their administration by amalgamating certain tribunals based on the similarity in their functional domain.  It also delegated powers to the central government to make Rules to provide for the qualifications, appointments, term of office, salaries and allowances, removal, and other conditions of service for chairpersons and members of these tribunals.  

This Bill replaces an Ordinance with similar provisions that was promulgated in April 2021.   The 2021 Ordinance was challenged in the Supreme Court over its compliance with past Supreme Court judgements.  In July 2021, the Court struck down certain provisions of the Ordinance, such as the four-year term of office for members, and the minimum age bar of 50 years to be appointed as a member of a tribunal.  Table 2 shows a detailed comparison of key provisions of the 2021 Bill with the 2021 Ordinance and the principles laid down by the Supreme Court in its judgement.  The Bill does not conform to the judgement of the Supreme Court and retains the provisions of the Ordinance that were struck down by the Court. 

For an analysis of the 2021 Ordinance, please see our note here.  For more details on the evolution of the tribunal system in India, please see our note

Table 1: Transfer of functions of key appellate bodies as proposed under the Bill

Appellate body

Role

Proposed entity

Appellate Tribunal under the Cinematograph Act, 1952

Adjudication of appeals against the Board of Film Certification

High Court

Appellate Board under the Trade Marks Act, 1999

Adjudication of appeals against orders of the Registrar

High Court

Appellate Board under the Copyright Act, 1957

Adjudication of certain disputes and appeals against orders of the Registrar of Copyright.   Disputes include those related to publications and term of the copyright

Commercial Court or the Commercial Division of a High Court*

Authority for Advance Rulings under the Customs Act, 1962

Adjudication of appeals against orders of the Customs Authority for advance rulings

High Court

Appellate Board under The Patents Act, 1970

Adjudication of appeals against decisions of the Controller on certain matters.  Matters include applications for patents and restoration of patents.

High Court

Airport Appellate Tribunal under the Airports Authority of India Act, 1994

Adjudication of:

  • disputes arising from the disposal of properties left on airport premises by unauthorised occupants, and
  • for appeals against the order of an eviction officer
  • Central government, for disputes arising from the disposal of properties left on airport premises by unauthorised occupants.
  • High Court, for appeals against orders of an eviction officer.

Airport Appellate Tribunal under the Control of National Highways (Land and Traffic) Act, 2002

Adjudication of appeals against orders of the Highway Administration on matters including, grant of lease or licence of highway land, removal of unauthorised occupation, and prevention of damage to highway.

Civil Court# 

Appellate Tribunal under the Protection of Plant Varieties and Farmers' Rights Act, 2001

Adjudication of appeals against certain orders of Registrar or Plant Varieties and Farmer Rights Authority

High Court

Appellate Board under the Geographical Indications of Goods (Registration and Protection) Act, 1999

Adjudication of appeals against orders of the Registrar

High Court

Notes: * Constituted under the Commercial Courts Act, 2015; # Refers to a Civil Court of original jurisdiction in a district and includes the High Court in the exercise of its ordinary original civil jurisdiction.
Sources: The Tribunals Reforms Bill, 2021; Parent Acts of the appellate bodies; PRS.

Table 2: Key provisions in the 2021 Bill and the Ordinance vis-a-vis the Supreme Court judgements

Provisions

2021 Ordinance

Supreme Court Judgement of July 2021

2021 Bill

Term of office of Chairperson and members

Four-year term with eligibility for re-appointment.

The Court stated that a short tenure of members (such as three years) along with provisions of re-appointment increases the influence and control of the Executive over the judiciary.  In a short tenure, by the time the members achieve the required knowledge, expertise and efficiency, one term gets over.  This prevents enhancement of adjudicatory experience, thereby, impacting the efficacy of tribunals.

The Court struck down the provision of four -year term and reiterated its past judgements, which recommended a five-year term with eligibility for re-appointment.  

Same as that in Ordinance.

Minimum age requirement for appointment of Chairperson and members

50 years

The Court observed that the minimum age requirement of 50 years violates past Court judgements, where the Court has stated that advocates with at least 10 years of relevant experience must be eligible to be appointed as judicial members, as that is the qualification required for a High Court judge.  Such a high age limit also prevents the recruitment of young talent.

The provision was struck down.

Same as that in Ordinance.

Time limit for appointments

Preferably within three months from the date of the recommendations of the search-cum-selection committee.

The Court noted that not mandating the central government to make appointments within three months (from the date of recommendation of the search-cum-selection committee) leads to delay in the appointment of members.  This impacts the functioning and efficacy of tribunals.

The provision was struck down over non-compliance with past judgements, which mandated the appointments to be made within three months.

Same as that in Ordinance.

Number of recommendations for a post

Two names for each post.

The Court stated that the recommendations for appointment of members by the search-cum-selection committee should be final.  The Executive must not be allowed to exercise any discretion in matter of appointments in a tribunal.

The Court struck down the provision and reiterated its past judgement, which specified that the selection committee must suggest one name for each post.  The Committee may recommend one name in wait list.  

Same as that in Ordinance.

Sources: The Tribunals Reforms Ordinance, 2021; The Tribunals Reforms Bill, 2021; Madras Bar Association vs Union of India, W.P.(C) No. 000502 of 2021; PRS.