High Court ruling can make the Armed Forces Tribunal infructuous
Lt Gen Harwant Singh (Retd)
THE defence services had been clamouring for an Armed Forces Tribunal (AFT) for decades, essentially because the civilian courts took years and even decades to decide their cases. These inordinate delays had an adverse impact on discipline, morale and functioning of the military. Take just two cases. The Sixth Pay Commission gave Brigadiers more pension than Major Generals. It took the Punjab and Haryana High Court three long years to address this simple anomaly. Some five years later the case is still doing the rounds of the Supreme Court. Air Vice Marshal Masand, with outstanding service record and a pilot of great repute with the Vir Chakra to his credit, was superseded for promotion to the rank of Air Marshal. Long after he retired, he is still fighting his case in the civilian courts. Perhaps his children will have to continue the fight after he has left the scene.
Since the AFT has come into existence, its benches spread across the country have done a commendable job and have been deciding cases, not only with great scrutiny and application of mind, but with equal promptitude. They are moving quicker that the fast track courts, reinforcing the maxim that justice delayed is justice denied.They have been able to decide cases that have been hanging fire in civilian courts for as long as half a century. Though the AFT is established on the lines of the Central Administrative Tribunal (CAT), they differ in one essential aspect in that the AFT reviews cases of defence services which have separate laws and courts of their own. These courts have full judicial powers. The AFT was set up after long prevarication, dithering and delay, recommendations of the law commission and innumerable articles in the national press pressing for its dire need.
The composition of the AFT was worked out with a view to relate it to the composition of the courts whose verdict, besides other service issues, it would also be called upon to review. This was so because civilian courts are generally not conversant with the military's working, systems, ethos, environment, and the circumstances under which it is required to operate and discharge its duties in peace and war. These special conditions require a rigorous law, quite apart from the general civilian laws. There was a time that for this obvious reason, civilian courts were somewhat reluctant to take on the military's cases. However civilian courts, for no apparent reason, now seem to adopt an altogether different approach.
As per the AFT Act, rulings and verdicts of the AFT can be reviewed only by the Supreme Court. The very purpose of setting up the AFT was to provide a dedicated forum for quick redressal of grievances and judicial review of court martial orders with the provision for just a one-stage review (Supreme Court in this case) for armed forces personnel, as disposal of cases in civilian courts took a long time and this inordinate delay impinged on the discipline and good order in the defence services.
The Delhi High Court, in its recent ruling noted that High Courts are constitutionally empowered to review decisions of the AFT, not withstanding the fact that the Armed Forces Tribunal Act of 2007 stipulated that appeals against AFT's orders would rest directly with the Apex Court. A Division Bench comprising Justice Pradeep Nandrajog and Justice Suresh Kait further ruled, "AFT, being manned by personnel appointed by the executive, albeit in consultation with the Chief Justice of India, cannot be said to be truly a judicious review forum as a substitute to High Courts that are constitutional courts and the power of judicial review, being a basic feature of the Constitution, under Article 226 and Article 227 of the Constitution is unaffected by the constitution of the AFT." Further, tribunals can perform a "supplemental as opposed to a substitutional" role vis-a-vis the high courts, the bench held.
The AFT was set up to exercise appellate jurisdiction with respect to orders, findings or sentences of court martial and exercise original jurisdiction with respect to service disputes. This ruling puts the very purpose of having an AFT somewhat infructuous and takes us back to square one. It is in fact, a leap forward into the past. It will bring about the same painful and frustrating delays and their impact on the military's discipline and functioning as they existed before the promulgation of the AFT Act. The Delhi High Court, in its infinite wisdom, deep understanding of the Constitution and legal acumen, has turned the very idea and rationale of setting up the AFT on its head.
Now article 227(4) of the Constitution, on which the Delhi High Court has relied in passing the above noted order, provides superintendence of High Court over all courts/tribunals falling in its jurisdiction but it specifically excludes court martial cases. Therefore and quite simply and logically, it cannot have power of superintedence over the Armed Forces Tribunal that has appellate jurisdiction over verdicts of court martial cases. Further when there is specific provision for appeal against verdicts/orders of the Tribunal under sections 30/31 of the Act to only the Supreme Court, then how could a writ petition be entertained by a high court.
High Courts are already overloaded with work and the backlog runs into a million cases and it is to bypass this legal quagmire and the necessity for quick disposal of defence services cases that the AFT Act of 2007 was promulgated by the government as an act of Parliament and as such became a law, where the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court was in the consultative loop. In case the rulings of the AFT are to be subjected to review by the high courts and later by the Supreme Court then the purpose of establishing the AFT is defeated.
On an earlier occasion, a High Court gave a ruling that court martial should record a "speaking order". Now the composition and working of a court martial is akin to the jury system, which for too obvious a reason does not record a "speaking order". Unfortunately, defence services did not contest this ruling in the Supreme Court and court martial proceedings are now required to be accompanied by a speaking order. The judge advocate, who is on the court martial merely to render advice to the members on purely technical legal issues and has no voting right, is the only one who is qualified to write a speaking order. Consequently the judge advocate has come to exercise undue influence over the court, which in reality and practice has altered the very character and working of the court martial.
To avoid inevitable delays in the finalisation of defence services cases dealt by the AFT, in case these are subjected to review by the High Courts as well, the order of the Delhi High Court must be contested in the Supreme Court by the service headquarters. The need for early disposal of defence services cases hardly needs any emphasis.
The writer is a former Deputy Chief of the Army Staff