L. Chandra Kumar v. Union of India [AIR 1997 SC 1125]

The judgement has proved to be highly important in understanding the value of tribunals in the current judicial system of India. Tribunals have been termed as quasi-judicial bodies that help in expediting a mater and disposing of it in the given period.

The Supreme Court of India and the High Courtsare overburdened by the increasing number of cases for a very long time now. The number of cases that are pending in each Court is staggering and at the same time an increasing number of cases are filed every day. The cases that are settled or better yet solved and disposed off are in no way the same as pending cases, let alone the same, they do not even come close to each other. As of November 2019,at least 59,867 cases were pending in the Supreme Court of India and around 44.75 lakh cases in different High Courts. But these numbers are dull in comparison to the number of cases pending in the district level courts which is at a staggering number of 3.14 crore cases. These numbers are not much different from the numbers in December 2014, when the Supreme Court was at 62,791 cases, the High Courts at 41.53 lakh cases, and 2.62 crore cases in the various district courts.[1]

For a long time now, the search was initiated to unburden the courts from all the pending litigation. A solution was found by the Law commission in 1975, by the Administrative Reform Commission in 1969, by the Swarn Singh Committee in 1975 and the Hon’ble Supreme Court of India in the case of KK Dutta v. Union of India[2]. All these recommended that administrative or service tribunals should be set up to relieve the courts of this monster of pending litigation and an unending amount of writ petitions and appeals in service matters.

It was based on these recommendations that the Parliament of India passed the Constitution (Forty-Second Amendment) Act, 1976, which added Part XIV- A in it. this part is titled ‘Tribunals’ and consists of only two articles, that are, Article 323A and Article 323B.

Article 323A deals with the establishment of administrative tribunals. It states that the tribunal shall be established for the union and a separate State. It also specifies the jurisdiction of the Tribunal along with the conditions for recruitment and conditions of serving for the same.

Article 323B deals with the establishment of tribunals for other matters, namely, tax disputes, foreign exchange disputes, industrial and labour disputes, election to Parliament and State Legislature,etc.

Administrative tribunals help in providing speedy and public good oriented justice to the aggrieved, as the court is specifically designed to understand the concepts of technically difficult cases.

Facts of the case

After the addition of Article 323A and 323B and the Central Administrative Act, 1985, (hereinafter referred to as the Act) several writ petitions challenging the constitutional validity of these were brought forward with a vengeance. This resulted in different views from the Supreme Court regarding the matter. The first one was in the case of SP Sampath Kumar v. Union of India[3]where the constitutional validity of the Central Administrative Act, 1985 was upheld. The case was regarding the validity of Section 5(6) of the Act stating that a single Member can exercise jurisdiction. The Hon’ble Supreme Court held that even though the power of judicial review is a basic feature of the constitution that is given to the Supreme Court and High Court, the establishment of administrative tribunals does not take away that power but gives it a new take on the problem in hand. This power is given to administrative tribunals will affect the effective dismissal of matters before the mechanisms. It was stated that the mechanism does not hamper the basic structure as long as it is ensured that the alternate mechanism is an effective substitute for the High Court.Because of the case above, another case provides that the administrative tribunals cannot hold equal powers such as a High court and can also not be deemed as a High Court, due to which the pay of the members cannot be same as any High Court Judge., namely M.B. Majumdar v. Union of India[4].But in the case of R.K. Jain v. Union of India[5]it was found that the Tribunal has the capability of becoming an effective alternate mechanism, there is no need for the members to have the same legal expertise as High Court judges or judicial expertise and training. It was also stated that “such tribunals being a creature of statutes can in no case claim the status of the High Court or parity or as substitutes.”

The second case was Amulya Chandra Kalita v. Union of India[6]where it was stated that an Administrative Member of the Tribunal can not hear and decide a case. The Act was thus amended vide Section 5(2). The next case was J.B Chopra v. Union of India[7]where the court held that “the court held that the Tribunals have the jurisdiction, power, and authority even to adjudicate upon questions pertaining to the constitutional validity of a rule under the proviso to Article 309 of the Constitution framed by the President of India. They can even adjudicate on the vires of the Act of Parliament and State Legislatures.”

The basic facts of this case are that this case has been referred to this court to be decided by a larger bench to settle the different views given by the court in a series of cases following the judgement of Sampath Kumar in 1987.

Issues of the case

  1. Whether the power conferred upon Parliament by Article 323A(2)(d) or the State Legislatures or by Article 323B(3)(d) of the Constitution, to exclude the jurisdiction of `all courts’, except that of the Supreme Court under Article 136 of the Constitution?
  2. Whether the Tribunals, constituted either under Article 323-A or under Article 323-B of the Constitution, possess the competence to test the constitutional validity of a statutory provision or rule?
  3. Whether these Tribunals with their present functioning can be said to be effective substitutes for the High Courts in discharging the power of judicial review? If not, what are the changes required to make them conform to their founding objectives?

Contentions of the Petitioner

Let’s briefly go over the contentions of the case to move forward to the judgment and analysis:

  1. To hold Article 323A(2)(d) and 323B(3)(d) of the constitution unconstitutional so that tribunals get exclusive jurisdiction that was vested in High Courts under Article 227.
  2. To hold Section 5(6) of the Act, in so far as it allows a Single Member Bench of a Tribunal to test the constitutional validity of a statutory provision and declare it as unconstitutional.
  3. The provisions of the Constitution should be unconstitutional so that they exclude the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court and the High Courts under Articles 32 and 226 of the Constitution.
  4. While the provisions of the Act do not purport to affect the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court under Article 32 of the Constitution, Articles 323A and 323B allow the Parliament at a time in the future to pursue such a course that may hamper the jurisdiction of the Tribunals and are therefore liable to be struck down.
  5. The decision in Sampath Kumar’s case was put out with the hope that the Tribunals would be effective substitutes for the High Courts. This position is neither factually nor legally correct on account of the following differences between High Courts and these Tribunals as the High Courts are still getting the same cases.

Contentions of the Respondent

  1. To uphold the validity of the impugned constitutional provisions and to allow such Tribunals to exercise the jurisdiction under Article 226 of the Constitution.
  2. Parliament must be deemed to have been aware of such a position and it must be concluded that the jurisdiction under Article 32 was not intended to be affected. However, the jurisdiction of the High Courts under Article 226 was sought to be removed by creating alternative institutional mechanisms.
  3. The theory enunciated in Sampath Kumar’s case is based on sound considerations and does not require any reconsideration.
  4. Since the decisions of this Court in Amulya Chandra’s case and Dr. Mahabal Ram’s case had held that matters relating to the vires of a provision are to be dealt with by a Bench consisting of a judicial member and these guidelines will be followed in future, there is no vice of unconstitutionality in Section 5(6).

Judgement

The court held that Article 323A(2)(d) and 323B(3)(d) to the extent they do not interfere with the jurisdiction of High Courts and the Supreme Court under Articles 226 and 227 and 32 of the constitution are unconstitutional. The court also held that the Section 28 of the Central Administrative tribunal Act, 1985 that states the ‘exclusion of jurisdiction’ or any other section in any other Act that is made under Articles 323A and 323B include jurisdiction that may surpass the jurisdiction of High Courts and Supreme Court were held ultra-vires.

This in general terms means that the issue related to the jurisdiction of tribunals was set that it cannot surpass the jurisdiction of the High Court or the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court. As long as the tribunal does not take power given under Article 226/227 and 32 of the constitution to the High Court and Supreme Court respectively, it can function as is and reduce the burden of the court.

The court also provided that the Tribunals will be performing a supplemental role rather than a substitutional role in exercising their powers and will be answerable to High Courts and the Supreme Court, that is, their decisions will be under the scrutiny of the Division Benches of the respective High Courts.

The court also upheld Section 5(6) of the Central Administrative Tribunal Act, 1985 as valid and constitutional, and held that Section 2 and 5(6) of the Act need to work together for smooth functioning.

Not just this, the court by giving this judgement lessened the burden of the courts by not stating that the Act itself is unconstitutional. The reason given behind this was that the Act was enacted by the Parliamentto solve the overburdening of the court and the time being taken by the court to solve minute to minute cases.

Critical analysis of case

The reason behind the initiation of this case was to understand the disturbances in the views on the issue regarding the tribunals and their need and functioning. For example, the exclusion of judicial review under Article 226, 227 and 32 of the Constitution was questioned as violative of the basic structure of the Constitution in the case of Sampath Kumar. The case was preceded by many cases that had put out different views on the matter of tribunals from every different angle they could find, to either toprove that the Act was unconstitutional or prove that the jurisdiction given is wrong and affects the basic structure of the constitution or in another case to prove that the members of the tribunal need not have same qualifications as the judges in High Court. In the end, it was only proved that the supreme court needs to come up to scratch and clear the confusion regarding the setting up of tribunals in all matters, be it administrative or any other. The Supreme Court did come through and all the doubts related to tribunals were finally laid to rest.

The Act was enacted to provide relief to the overburdened courts and relieve them of this situation all the while also decreasing the time, Indian Judiciary takes to dispose of a case. The purpose and intention of the Parliament were justified, with some disturbances in the making and implementation. The major problem was the jurisdiction. The Act was written in a way that made it seem that the power of the High Court and Supreme Court was being taken away and given to the tribunals being set up. This was alarming as these powers given to the High Court and the Supreme Court are regarded as the basic structure of the constitution. That is why the issue regarding the jurisdiction had to be addressed very quickly and swiftly with the utmost care.

In this case, in light of the judgement in the case of Sampath Kumar, the Supreme Court decided that the case needed to be ‘comprehensively reconsidered and a fresh look by the larger bench was necessary.’ This way the case was referred to a larger bench who decided that as Article 226, 227 and 32 of the Constitution provide the power for judicial review and the independence to judiciary it is part and parcel to the basic structure of the constitution. It cannot be taken away.

Conclusion

The judgement has proved to be highly important in understanding the value of tribunals in the current judicial system of India. Tribunals have been termed as quasi-judicial bodies that help in expediting a mater and disposing of it in the given period. There was a time in between where every adjudication was to go to a specific tribunal in that matter and then come to the High Court or the Supreme Court for review. Some laws have specific provisions stating that any matter under that law has to be approached under the jurisdiction of a tribunal, such as in the Insolvency and Debt Recovery Act, it has a Debt Recovery Tribunal (DRT) to deal with matters related to the same. This has made the tribunals overburdened as well and has slowed down the adjudication process there as well. The method made to expedite a matter has itself turned slow and tedious. But tribunals have been very helpful in clearing out the more technical cases and reducing the burden to the courts little by little. Another fruitful example is the National Green Tribunal that deals with civil cases that involve substantial cases related to the environment including enforcement of any legal right relating to the environment.

Also read Olga Tellis & Ors. v. Bombay Municipal Corporation


[1] https://thewire.in/law/pending-court-cases

[2]1980 AIR 2056

[3] (1987) 1 SCC 124

[4] 1990 AIR 2263

[5] 1993 AIR 1769

[6] JT 1990 (1) SC 558

[7] AIR 1987 SC 357