Thursday, July 14, 2011

Armed Forces Tribunal Orders are mostly defied

On record
Half the tribunal’s orders are being defied
The Tribune 10 July 2011 by Vijay Mohan
Justice Ghanshyam Prasad
THE Armed Forces Tribunal has been in existence for over two years. An agency dedicated to deal with military related issues, it expedited the judicial process that earlier used to take years to settle due to the huge pendency of cases before various high courts. The inclusion of a retired armed forces’ officer on the bench also helped in dealing with technical issues unique to the services.

While the tribunal has been a boon, specially the veterans who are now able to get their pension related grievances resolved faster, several issues remain to be sorted out. Justice Ghanshyam Prasad, the senior judicial member of the Tribunal’s Chandigarh bench speaks on some of the more contentious issues.

What are the major challenges affecting the functioning of the Tribunal?
A major obstacle is that the Tribunal does not have the powers to initiate civil contempt proceedings in case of non-compliance of its orders. This is unlike the High Courts, where a party can be hauled up for non-compliance. This does have an impact on the Tribunal’s effectiveness. In more than 50 per cent of the cases, the orders and directions passed by the benches are not executed by the authorities concerned, requiring repeated follow-up action. On an average our bench is receiving 10-12 applications every month seeking redressal for non-compliance of orders alone.

So, what is being done to redress this issue?
The government is taking steps to incorporate certain amendments in the Armed Forces Tribunal Act that will equip the tribunals with powers to issue civil contempt. This is consequent to a case that went up to the Supreme Court, where the issue cropped up during the proceedings. We would then be able to initiate the requisite action against erring authorities. At present, the tribunals’ powers of contempt are limited to criminal contempt where we can only initiate action in case of a person disrupting court proceedings or creating a nuisance.

There is an accusation that different members of the same bench have given varying judgements on similar matters involving common points of law.

Is there any justification?
These are judicial matters. We cannot call varying orders as conflict of judgement. Though they may appear similar on the face of it, all cases have different facts and circumstances behind them and the reasons for arriving at a conclusion can be different. All members could be correct in interpreting and adjudicating a respective case.

The AFT Act says that appeals against the Tribunal’s orders would lie before the Supreme Court, but the Delhi and the Kerela High Courts have recently ruled that high courts have the powers to review orders passed by the Tribunal.

How does this affect the Tribunal’s functioning?
The Tribunal’s functioning, per se, would not be affected, as it has no direct bearing on the role and powers of the Tribunal. The impact of the High Courts’ orders would be borne by the parties concerned only after the Tribunal has passed its orders. It has added another forum between the Tribunal and the Supreme Court and would now further lengthen the judicial process. The Tribunal was established to expedite the judicial process for armed forces personnel, but now things could go back to square one. It is the poor soldiers who would suffer.

Are there any plans to expand the Tribunal?
The Chandigarh Bench covers the states of Punjab, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh and Jammu and Kashmir. This area has a large number of serving and retired armed forces personnel and keeping in view the number of cases filed daily, we need four benches in Chandigarh as against the two at present. Besides pending cases, we are getting about 200 fresh cases every month. There are also reports of the government contemplating setting up a separate bench for Jammu and Kashmir as it is very difficult for people from that area to travel all the way to Chandigarh , file cases and attend proceedings. Then we have recently started a circuit bench at Shimla, where a bench from Chandigarh holds court for a few days there according to a pre-defined roster. This is taking justice to the doorsteps of veterans and is of great help to those residing in Himachal Pradesh as it does away with the need to travel long distances and arranging accommodation for overnight stay. There is certainly scope for more circuit benches.

Are there issues pertaining to the Tribunal that are still pending with the government or other ministries concerned?
The biggest issue is non-availability of permanent accommodation for the Tribunal’s offices as well as its members. At present we are functioning from modified barracks at an interim location. Then there is the question of regular staff appointments. All members at present are retired judges or service officers.
Half the tribunal’s orders are being defied

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