The Tribunals Reforms Act, 2021 replaces a similar Ordinance promulgated in April 2021 that sought to dissolve eight tribunals. The tribunals functioned as appellate bodies to hear disputes under various statutes and transferred their functions to existing judicial forums such as a civil court or a High Court.
The Act was introduced in the lower house of the Parliament only a few days after the Supreme Court, in the Madras Bar Association (2021), struck down certain provisions of the Tribunal Reforms (Rationalisation and Conditions of Service) Ordinance, 2021, a predecessor to the Act with similar provisions. The present Act has been passed by the legislature as an attempt to reverse the judicial pronouncement by re-enacting the provisions which were struck down by the Supreme Court.
It seeks to dissolve certain existing appellate bodies and transfer their functions to other existing judicial bodies. It seeks to empower the Central Government to make rules for qualifications, appointment, term of office, salaries and allowances, resignation, removal and other terms and conditions of service of Members of Tribunals. It provides that the Chairperson and Members of the Tribunals will be appointed by the Central Government on the recommendation of a Search-cum-Selection Committee.
It also provides the composition of the Committee, to be headed by the Chief Justice of India or a Judge of the Supreme Court nominated by him. For state tribunals, there will be a separate search committee.The Union government has to ‘preferably’ decide on the recommendations of the search-cum selection committee within 3 months of the date of the recommendation.
Chairperson of a Tribunal shall hold office for a term of 4 years or till he attains the age of 70 years, whichever is earlier. Other Members of a Tribunal shall hold office for a term of 4 years or till he attains the age of 67 years, whichever is earlier.
Impact on the executive and the judiciary:
The Act has nullified the ruling in the Madras Bar Association case. Thereby, divesting the judiciary of its innate power to keep a check on the power of the legislature and diluting the doctrine of separation of powers.
The move brings greater accountability in the functioning of the tribunals but also raises questions on the independence of these judicial bodies by giving the government a foot in the door in the process.The Chief Justice of the High Court, who would head the committee, will not have a casting vote. The Union now has more control over the appointment process and has been given the power to remove tribunal members.It seeks to empower the Central Government to make rules for qualifications, appointment, term of office, salaries and allowances, resignation, removal and other terms and conditions of service of Members of Tribunals.
The intent and object behind the legislation is to tackle the problem of insufficiency of staff, infrastructure in tribunals and lagged dispute. It helps to take out the jurisdiction of various subject matters from the ‘clutches’ of the independent judiciary and place them with quasi-judicial bodies under the strong control of the executive and then makes their orders unchallengeable before Constitutional courts thereby making such tribunals essentially the first and last courts.
Some panelists have opted to form the National Tribunals Commission via a constitutional amendment or be backed by a statute that guarantees its functional, operational and financial independence. As tribunals have attained a unique place in the Indian judicial landscape and have been adjudicating several important matters, their independence has to be crystallized and preserved in reality.