Apex court stays retirement of 2 judicial members of Armed Forces Tribunal
The retirements would have left the court for defence-related litigation with only one judicial member in chair out of a total 17 positions
The Supreme Court (SC) has stayed the retirements of two judicial members of the Armed Forces Tribunal (AFT), Justice Mohammad Tahir of the Chandigarh bench and Justice Sunita Gupta of the principal bench at Delhi. The order comes as a lifesaver for the tribunal as their retirement would have left the AFT with only one judicial member in chair out of a total 17 positions. The order will remain in force till at least eight judicial members are appointed by the government.
Though the Chandigarh bench would not immediately become functional because of non-availability of an administrative member, it is expected that all benches crippled by shortage could at least now function for a few days every month by circulating the members to various seats of the tribunal all over India.
A Constitution bench of the Supreme Court had last month struck down the new tribunal rules promulgated by the government in 2017 which gave more powers and control to the government over appointments and functioning of tribunals. While allowing a bunch of petitions filed, including by Delhi-based lawyer Kudrat Sandhu and the Pnjab and Haryana high court lawyer Navdeep Singh, the Constitution bench directed framing of new rules for all tribunals in consonance with earlier SC decisions concerning independence of tribunals.
The SC ruled that members must be provided longer tenures to ensure stability and that tribunals must not be made dependant upon ministries against which they have to pass orders. Reappointment of members and participation in the selection process by the secretaries of the departments which are litigants before the tribunals was also deprecated.
The Constitution bench has also frowned upon direct appeals from tribunals to the SC and has effectively overruled a 2015 decision which had debarred litigants from approaching the high courts against orders of the AFT which made the tribunal practically the first and the last court for defence-related litigation. In 1997, a seven-judge Constitution bench had observed that appeals directly to the SC made justice unaffordable and inaccessible for litigants.
Civilian employees have the right of approaching division benches of high courts to challenge orders of the Central Administrative Tribunal.