Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Provisions of the Armed Forces Tribunal Act challenged in the Supreme Court of India

In a step towards restoration of rights of defence personnel and veterans who had been rendered remediless from most decisions of the Armed Forces Tribunal (AFT) after a Supreme Court verdict last year, the Apex Court has issued notice to the Central Government and agreed to hear a plea by a martyr’s father challenging the constitutional validity of Sections 30 and 31 of the Armed Forces Tribunal Act which bar any kind of appeal for the military community from AFT orders except in cases involving a “point of law of general public importance”. Senior Advocate Mr Arvind P Datar and Ms Aishwarya Bhati appeared for the Petitioner.

The Petition has been filed by Gurbax Singh Dhindsa, father of Late Flying Officer GS Dhindsa, who died in a fighter aircraft crash at Srinagar in the aftermath of Kargil operations and who had been refused the correct pension by the defence accounts department. Though the AFT granted him his entitlement, it refused to grant him interest from the date of death. When Mr Dhindsa wanted to approach the High Court for interest, he was informed that the HCs had been barred from entertaining challenges to AFT orders by an SC verdict of March 2015 passed on a plea filed by the Central Government in 2011, and that the SC also could only hear AFT appeals involving ‘general public importance’. 

The provisions of the Act have been challenged on the ground that the AFT has been rendered the first and the last Court for litigants without any remedy or access against its orders, thereby leaving litigants remediless. It has been stated that the situation was against the law laid down by SC’s Constitution Bench holding that a direct appeal to SC made justice inaccessible and unaffordable. It has also been stated that the SC had earlier observed that litigants could not afford the cost and expenses of contesting litigation in the apex court and “suffer silently in the name of God by treating it their destiny”. The Petitioner has emphasized that the defence community could not be placed at a lower pedestal than other citizens who could challenge the order of the Central Administrative Tribunal in the HC and if still not satisfied, to the SC. He has stated that it was not possible for litigants from various places to afford litigation in the country’s highest court for small sums and routine matters, whereas the HCs were accessible and affordable.

The Parliamentary Committee examining provisions of the AFT Bill in the year 2005 had recorded that though a direct appeal was being provided to the SC in questions involving general public importance, the High Courts would hear challenges against AFT orders on the lines of CAT. The HCs later stopped entertaining petitions after the SC verdict in 2015.

While it is extremely difficult for private litigants to approach the SC from AFT orders, the Ministry of Defence, due to availability of resources, keeps challenging most verdicts citing ‘general public importance’ in every case. As per a February 2016 report of Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy, while only 34 aggrieved litigants were able to file appeals in the SC in 2014, the Defence Ministry filed 890 appeals during the same period. Many ex-servicemen organisations and legal experts had expressed concern over lack of access to HC over AFT orders in routine cases. The AFT, which operates under the Defence Ministry, has also not been vested with powers of civil contempt and it was only after the intervention of the Punjab & Haryana High Court that benches of AFT started initiating coercive action against the Defence Ministry for execution of orders.

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