On March 11, the Supreme Court held in Union of India vs Major General Shri Kant Sharma that Sections 30 and 31 of the Armed Forces Tribunal Act effectively excluded the jurisdiction of the High Courts to hear petitions challenging orders of the Armed Forces Tribunal. This judgment is worth a close scrutiny, because while it seems to carve out an exception to the well-accepted rule that judicial review under Articles 226 and 227 of the Constitution is part of the basic structure, the Supreme Court expressly denied that to be the basis of its decision.
The Armed Forces Tribunal Act is a law dealing with the adjudication of service-related disputes for members of the Armed Forces, as well as court martials, and matters incident thereto. The Act provides for the establishment of an Armed Forces Tribunal to adjudicate service matters with respect to the armed forces. Clearly, its functions are similar to that of the Central Administrative Tribunal (its composition is not, but since that aspect is not addressed by the judgment, we will not discuss it here).
The crucial sections at issue were Sections 30 and 31, which provided for appeals from the orders of the Tribunal. Section 30 states:
“Subject to the provisions of section 31, an appeal shall lie to the Supreme Court against the final decision or order of the Tribunal (other than an order passed under section 19).”
Section 31 likewise states:
“An appeal to the Supreme Court shall lie with the leave of the Tribunal; and such leave shall not be granted unless it is certified by the Tribunal that a point of law of general public importance is involved in the decision, or it appears to the Supreme Court that the point is one which ought to be considered by that Court.”
Sections 30 and 31, therefore, lay down the procedure for appealing an order of the Armed Forces Tribunal to the Supreme Court. Parallel to this, Section 33 excludes the jurisdiction of civil courts, and Section 34 provides the transfer of all pending cases (including cases in the High Courts) to the Tribunal, after the commencement of the Tribunal.
The question before the Court was whether Sections 30 and 31 barred the jurisdiction of the High Courts from hearing petitions (under 226/227) against the orders of the Armed Forces Tribunal. The Court began by pointing out certain specific provisions of the Constitution. Under Article 33 of the Constitution, Parliament may modify the operation of Part III to the armed forces. Article 227(4) of the Constitution, part of the provision dealing with the superintendence of the High Courts, provides that “nothing in this article shall be deemed to confer on a High Court powers of superintendence over any court or tribunal constituted by or under any law relating to the Armed Forces.” Article 136(2), part of the provision dealing with special leave to appeal to the Supreme Court, provides that “nothing in clause ( 1 ) shall apply to any judgment, determination, sentence or order passed or made by any court or tribunal constituted by or under any law relating to the Armed Forces.”
At this point, the following argument seems to be there to be made: admittedly, judicial review under Articles 226 and 227, and under Article 32, is part of the basic structure of the Constitution. But the Constitution itself, through various provisions, carves out an exception in the cases of the armed forces, where the scope of judicial review is to be regulated by statute (Articles 227(4) and 136(2)). Consequently, Parliament may, by law, bar the jurisdiction of the High Court to hear appeals from orders passed by the Armed Forces Tribunal.
Such an argument is open to objection. It also raises the fascinating question of whether an original constitutional provision can be unconstitutional because it violates the basic structure (if judicial review is part of the basic structure, than how can 227(4) and 136(2) be consistent with that?)). The Court, however, did not make this argument at all. Instead, it first affirmed the proposition that the Armed Forces Tribunal Act cannot take away the jurisdiction of the High Court under Articles 226 and 227 (paragraph 25).
The Court then cited a number of precedents for the proposition that although the jurisdiction of the High Court could not be taken away by any statute, in deciding whether or not to exercise its jurisdiction, the High Court must take into account the legislative intention behind the statute in question. Citing the prior case of Nivedita Sharma vs Cellular Operators Association of India, the Court observed that “when a statutory forum is created by law for redressal of grievances, a writ petition should not be entertained ignoring the statutory dispensation.” (paragraph 25)
But what was the statutory forum in the present case? Here is where the judgment becomes somewhat murky. Paragraph 33 of the judgment is preceded by a heading called “Statutory remedy“. Here, the Court cited the case Union of India vs Brigadier P.S. Singh Gill, and extracted a lengthy set of paragraph that detailed the appeals procedure under Sections 30 and 31 of the Armed Forces Tribunal Act. But Sections 30 and 31, as we saw, provide for an appeal to the Supreme Court. Surely the provision of an appeal to the Supreme Court cannot be the “alternative statutory forum” to the jurisdiction of the High Courts! That would fly in the fact of the Chandra Kumar judgment, the entire history of the Tribunals Cases and, indeed, the fundamental proposition that Articles 226/227 are part of the basic structure.
But then what is the alternative statutory forum? The only possible answer has to be: the Armed Forces Tribunal itself. This, indeed, is what the Court implied earlier in the judgment. In paragraph 14, it stated that: “it is clear from the scheme of the Act that jurisdiction of the Tribunal constituted under the Armed Forces Tribunal Act is in substitution of the jurisdiction of Civil Court and the High Court.“
But there is a serious problem here. And that is the L. Chandra Kumar judgment. In that case, as is well-known, a seven-judge bench of the Supreme Court held that Tribunals, as they were constituted an functioning, could act complementary to the High Courts, but not as substitutes. This was because:
“The constitutional safeguards which ensure the independence of the Judges of the superior judiciary, are not available to the Judges of the subordinate judiciary or to those who man Tribunals created by ordinary legislations. Consequently, Judges of the latter category can never be considered full and effective substitutes for the superior judiciary in discharging the function of constitutional interpretation. We, therefore, hold that the power of judicial review over legislative action vested in the High Courts under Articles 226 and in this Court under Article 32 of the Constitution is an integral and essential feature of the Constitution, constituting part of its basic structure. Ordinarily, therefore, the power of High Courts and the Supreme Court to test the constitutional validity of legislations can never be ousted or excluded.”
This has been a constant position of law. In its recent judgment, striking down the National Tax Tribunals, the Supreme Court based its entire analysis on a detailed demonstration of how the Tribunals lacked the essential qualities of the Courts (judicial independence etc.), that would allow them to serve as effective substitutes.
The Court’s judgment, therefore, is question-begging. It takes the existence of the Armed Forces Tribunal to be evidence of an “alternative statutory forum” that is a “substitute” for the High Courts. On that basis, it holds that while the jurisdiction of the High Courts cannot be ousted, it should not exercise its jurisdiction because of the existence of the alternative forum! As I have endeavoured to show, in my opinion, both steps of the argument are ill-founded, and in conflict with established precedent. Furthermore, why wouldn’t exactly the same reasoning apply to the Central Administrative Tribunal? What was needed in this case, to complete the argument was a detailed analysis showing that the Armed Forces Tribunal, in its composition, structure and powers and functions, was an effective substitute for the High Court. This, however, was not done.
The Court buttressed its judgment by pointing to a possible “anomalous situation” that would be created by permitting the High Courts to exercise their jurisdiction. It observed, in para 37:
“If any person aggrieved by the order of the Tribunal, moves before the High Court under Article 226 and the High Court entertains the petition and passes a judgment or order, the person who may be aggrieved against both the orders passed by the Armed Forces Tribunal and the High Court, cannot challenge both the orders in one joint appeal. The aggrieved person may file leave to appeal under Article 136 of the Constitution against the judgment passed by the High Court but in view of the bar of jurisdiction by clause (2) of Article 136, this Court cannot entertain appeal against the order of the Armed Forces Tribunal. Once, the High Court entertains a petition under Article 226 of the Constitution against the order of Armed Forces Tribunal and decides the matter, the person who thus approached the High Court, will also be precluded from filing an appeal under Section 30 with leave to appeal under Section 31 of the Act against the order of the Armed Forces Tribunal as he cannot challenge the order passed by the High Court under Article 226 of the Constitution under Section 30 read with Section 31 of the Act. Thereby, there is a chance of anomalous situation.”
But surely, if the Armed Forces Tribunal passes an order, which is assailed to the High Court under Article 226, and either party is aggrieved by the High Court’s decision, then the petition to the Supreme Court will be against the High Court’s order, and not the Tribunal’s? Why would there be a need to appeal the order of the Tribunal before the Supreme Court, when the most proximate decision is that of the High Court?
In any event, whatever the merits of the anomalous situations, the other objections to the judgment remain. The Supreme Court has deprived members of the armed forces an important constitutional remedy against the violation of their rights. It’s justification for doing so, I would suggest with respect, is unconvincing.