[Ouster of power of Judicial Review and vesting the same in administrative tribunals to the total exclusion of the High Courts under Article 226 of the Constitution – not permissible.]
The Constitution (Forty-second Amendment) Act, 1976 inserted Part XIVA in the Constitution which contains Articles 323A and 323B. These articles provide for the setting up of various tribunals as adjudicatory bodies. They, inter alia, contain provisions enabling the Parliament and state legislatures to exclude the jurisdiction of all courts except that of the Supreme Court under Article 136 with respect to matters falling within the jurisdiction of the tribunals concerned. The Administrative Tribunals Act, 1985 was enacted by Parliament by virtue of Article 323A. The validity of the Act was upheld in S.P. Sampath Kumar v. Union of India [(1987) 1 SCC 124]. While upholding the validity of Section 28 of the Act in Sampath Kumar case, the court had taken the view that the power of judicial review need not always be exercised by regular courts and the same could be exercised by an equally efficacious alternative mechanism. Apart from making suggestions relating to the eligibility, etc. of the persons who could be appointed as chairman, vice-chairman or members of the tribunal, the court stated that every Bench of the tribunal should consist of one Judicial Member and one Administrative Member.
The special leave petitions, civil appeals and writ petitions which together constitute the present batch of matters before us owe their origin to separate decisions of different High Courts and several provisions in different enactments which have been made the subject of challenge. Between them, they raise several distinct questions of law; they have, however, been grouped together as all of them involve the consideration of the following broad issues:
(1) Whether the power conferred upon Parliament or the State Legislatures by sub-clause (d) of clause (2) of Article 323A or by sub-clause (d) of clause (3) of Article 323B of the Constitution, to totally exclude the jurisdiction of ‘all courts’, except that of the Supreme Court under Article 136, in respect of disputes and complaints referred to in clause (1) of Article 323A or with regard to all or any of the matters specified in clause (2) of Article 323B, runs counter to the power of judicial review conferred on the High Courts under Articles 226/227 and on the Supreme Court under Article 32 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/rule?
(3) Whether these Tribunals, as they are functioning at present, 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?
- We may now analyse certain other authorities for the proposition that the jurisdiction conferred upon the High Courts and the Supreme Court under Articles 226 and 32 of the Constitution respectively, is part of the basic structure of the Constitution. While expressing his views on the significance of draft Article 25, which corresponds to the present Article 32 of the Constitution, Dr B.R. Ambedkar, the Chairman of the Drafting Committee of the Constituent Assembly stated as follows: If I was asked to name any particular article in this Constitution as the most important – an article without which this Constitution would be a nullity – I could not refer to any other article except this one. It is the very soul of the Constitution and the very heart of it and I am glad that the House has realised its importance.
- To express our opinion on the issue whether the power of judicial review vested in the High Courts and in the Supreme Court under Articles 226/227 and 32 is part of the basic structure of the Constitution, we must first attempt to understand what constitutes the basic structure of the Constitution. The doctrine of basic structure was evolved in Kesavananda Bharati case [1973 SC]. However, as already mentioned, that case did not lay down that the specific and particular features mentioned in that judgment alone would constitute the basic structure of our Constitution. In Indira Gandhi case [1975 SC], Chandrachud, J. held that the proper approach for a Judge who is confronted with the question whether a particular facet of the Constitution is part of the basic structure, is to examine, in each individual case, the place of the particular feature in the scheme of our Constitution, its object and purpose, and the consequences of its denial on the integrity of our Constitution as a fundamental instrument for the governance of the country.
- We find that the various factors mentioned in the test evolved by Chandrachud, J. have already been considered by decisions of various Benches of this Court that have been referred to in the course of our analysis. From their conclusions, it appears that this Court has always considered the power of judicial review vested in the High Courts and in this Court under Articles 226 and 32 respectively, enabling legislative action to be subjected to the scrutiny of superior courts, to be integral to our constitutional scheme.
- The legitimacy of the power of courts within constitutional democracies to review legislative action has been questioned since the time it was first conceived. The Constitution of India, being alive to such criticism, has, while conferring such power upon the higher judiciary, incorporated important safeguards. An analysis of the manner in which the Framers of our Constitution incorporated provisions relating to the judiciary would indicate that they were very greatly concerned with securing the independence of the judiciary. These attempts were directed at ensuring that the judiciary would be capable of effectively discharging its wide powers of judicial review. While the Constitution confers the power to strike down laws upon the High Courts and the Supreme Court, it also contains elaborate provisions dealing with the tenure, salaries, allowances, retirement age of Judges as well as the mechanism for selecting Judges to the superior courts. The inclusion of such elaborate provisions appears to have been occasioned by the belief that, armed by such provisions, the superior courts would be insulated from any executive or legislative attempts to interfere with the making of their decisions.
The Judges of the superior courts have been entrusted with the task of upholding the Constitution and to this end, have been conferred the power to interpret it. It is they who have to ensure that the balance of power envisaged by the Constitution is maintained and that the legislature and the executive do not, in the discharge of their functions, transgress constitutional limitations. It is equally their duty to oversee that the judicial decisions rendered by those who man the subordinate courts and tribunals do not fall foul of strict standards of legal correctness and judicial independence. 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 Article 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.
- We also hold that the power vested in the High Courts to exercise judicial superintendence over the decisions of all courts and tribunals within their respective jurisdictions is also part of the basic structure of the Constitution. This is because a situation where the High Courts are divested of all other judicial functions apart from that of constitutional interpretation, is equally to be avoided.
- However, it is important to emphasise that though the subordinate judiciary or Tribunals created under ordinary legislations cannot exercise the power of judicial review of legislative action to the exclusion of the High Courts and the Supreme Court, there is no constitutional prohibition against their performing a supplemental – as opposed to a substitutional – role in this respect. That such a situation is contemplated within the constitutional scheme becomes evident when one analyses clause (3) of Article 32 of the Constitution.
- If the power under Article 32 of the Constitution, which has been described as the “heart” and “soul” of the Constitution, can be additionally conferred upon “any other court”, there is no reason why the same situation cannot subsist in respect of the jurisdiction conferred upon the High Courts under Article 226 of the Constitution. So long as the jurisdiction of the High Courts under Articles 226/227 and that of this Court under Article 32 is retained, there is no reason why the power to test the validity of legislations against the provisions of the Constitution cannot be conferred upon Administrative Tribunals created under the Act or upon Tribunals created under Article 323-B of the Constitution. It is to be remembered that, apart from the authorisation that flows from Articles 323-A and 323-B, both Parliament and the State Legislatures possess legislative competence to effect changes in the original jurisdiction of the Supreme Court and the High Courts. This power is available to Parliament under Entries 77, 78, 79 and 95 of List I and to the State Legislatures under Entry
65 of List II; Entry 46 of List III can also be availed of both by Parliament and the State Legislatures for this purpose.
- We may first address the issue of exclusion of the power of judicial review of the High Courts. We have already held that in respect of the power of judicial review, the jurisdiction of the High Courts under Articles 226/227 cannot wholly be excluded. It has been contended before us that the Tribunals should not be allowed to adjudicate upon matters where the vires of legislations is questioned, and that they should restrict themselves to handling matters where constitutional issues are not raised. We cannot bring ourselves to agree to this proposition as that may result in splitting up proceedings and may cause avoidable delay. If such a view were to be adopted, it would be open for litigants to raise constitutional issues, many of which may be quite frivolous, to directly approach the High
Courts and thus subvert the jurisdiction of the Tribunals. Moreover, even in these special branches of law, some areas do involve the consideration of constitutional questions on a regular basis; for instance, in service law matters, a large majority of cases involve an interpretation of Articles 14, 15 and 16 of the Constitution. To hold that the Tribunals have no power to handle matters involving constitutional issues would not serve the purpose for which they were constituted. On the other hand, to hold that all such decisions will be subject to the jurisdiction of the High Courts under Articles 226/227 of the Constitution before a Division Bench of the High Court within whose territorial jurisdiction the Tribunal concerned falls will serve two purposes. While saving the power of judicial review of legislative action vested in the High Courts under Articles 226/227 of the Constitution, it will ensure that frivolous claims are filtered out through the process of adjudication in the Tribunal. The High Court will also have the benefit of a reasoned decision on merits which will be of use to it in finally deciding the matter.
- It has also been contended before us that even in dealing with cases which are properly before the Tribunals, the manner in which justice is dispensed by them leaves much to be desired. Moreover, the remedy provided in the parent statutes, by way of an appeal by special leave under Article 136 of the Constitution, is too costly and inaccessible for it to be real and effective. Furthermore, the result of providing such a remedy is that the docket of the Supreme Court is crowded with decisions of Tribunals that are challenged on relatively trivial grounds and it is forced to perform the role of a first appellate court. We have already emphasised the necessity for ensuring that the High Courts are able to exercise judicial superintendence over the decisions of the Tribunals under Article 227 of the Constitution.
Having regard to both the aforestated contentions, we hold that all decisions of Tribunals, whether created pursuant to Article 323-A or Article 323-B of the Constitution, will be subject to the High Court’s writ jurisdiction under Articles 226/227 of the Constitution, before a Division Bench of the High Court within whose territorial jurisdiction the particular Tribunal falls.
- We may add here that under the existing system, direct appeals have been provided from the decisions of all Tribunals to the Supreme Court under Article 136 of the Constitution. In view of our above-mentioned observations, this situation will also stand modified. In the view that we have taken, no appeal from the decision of a Tribunal will directly lie before the Supreme Court under Article 136 of the Constitution; but instead, the aggrieved party will be entitled to move the High Court under Articles 226/227 of the Constitution and from the decision of the Division Bench of the High Court the aggrieved party could move this Court under Article 136 of the Constitution.
- Before moving on to other aspects, we may summarise our conclusions on the jurisdictional powers of these Tribunals. The Tribunals are competent to hear matters where the vires of statutory provisions are questioned. However, in discharging this duty, they cannot act as substitutes for the High Courts and the Supreme Court which have, under our constitutional set-up, been specifically entrusted with such an obligation. Their function in this respect is only supplementary and all such decisions of the Tribunals will be subject to scrutiny before a Division Bench of the respective High Courts. The Tribunals will consequently also have the power to test the vires of subordinate legislations and rules.
However, this power of the Tribunals will be subject to one important exception. The Tribunals shall not entertain any question regarding the vires of their parent statutes following the settled principle that a Tribunal which is a creature of an Act cannot declare that very Act to be unconstitutional. In such cases alone, the High Court concerned may be approached directly. All other decisions of these Tribunals, rendered in cases that they are specifically empowered to adjudicate upon by virtue of their parent statutes, will also be subject to scrutiny before a Division Bench of their respective High Courts. We may add that the Tribunals will, however, continue to act as the only courts of first instance in respect of the areas of law for which they have been constituted. By this, we mean that it will not be open for litigants to directly approach the High Courts even in cases where they question the vires of statutory legislations (except, as mentioned, where the legislation which creates the particular Tribunal is challenged) by overlooking the jurisdiction of the Tribunal concerned.
- It has been brought to our notice that one reason why these Tribunals have been functioning inefficiently is because there is no authority charged with supervising and fulfilling their administrative requirements. To this end, it is suggested that the Tribunals be made subject to the supervisory jurisdiction of the High Courts within whose territorial jurisdiction they fall. We are, however, of the view that this may not be the best way of solving the problem. We do not think that our constitutional scheme requires that all adjudicatory bodies which fall within the territorial jurisdiction of the High Courts should be subject to their supervisory jurisdiction. If the idea is to divest the High Courts of their onerous burdens, then adding to their supervisory functions cannot, in any manner, be of assistance to them. The situation at present is that different Tribunals constituted under different enactments are administered by different administrative departments of the Central and the State Governments. The problem is compounded by the fact that some Tribunals have been created pursuant to Central Legislations and some others have been created by State Legislations. However, even in the case of Tribunals created by parliamentary legislations, there is no uniformity in administration.
We are of the view that, until a wholly independent agency for the administration of all such Tribunals can be set up, it is desirable that all such Tribunals should be, as far as possible, under a single nodal ministry which will be in a position to oversee the working of these Tribunals. For a number of reasons that Ministry should appropriately be the Ministry of Law. It would be open for the Ministry, in its turn, to appoint an independent supervisory body to oversee the working of the Tribunals. This will ensure that if the President or Chairperson of the Tribunal is for some reason unable to take sufficient interest in the working of the Tribunal, the entire system will not languish and the ultimate consumer of justice will not suffer. The creation of a single umbrella organisation will, in our view, remove many of the ills of the present system. If the need arises, there can be separate umbrella organisations at the Central and the State levels. Such a supervisory authority must try to ensure that the independence of the members of all such Tribunals is maintained. To that extent, the procedure for the selection of the members of the Tribunals, the manner in which funds are allocated for the functioning of the Tribunals and all other consequential details will have to be clearly spelt out.
- Since we have analysed the issue of the constitutional validity of Section 5(6) of the Act at length, we may now pronounce our opinion on this aspect. We wish to make it clear that where a question involving the interpretation of a statutory provision or rule in relation to the Constitution arises for the consideration of a Single Member Bench of the Administrative Tribunal, the proviso to Section 5(6) will automatically apply and the Chairman or the Member concerned shall refer the matter to a Bench consisting of at least two Members, one of whom must be a Judicial Member. This will ensure that questions involving the vires of a statutory provision or rule will never arise for adjudication before a Single Member Bench or a Bench which does not consist of a Judicial Member. So construed, Section 5(6) will no longer be susceptible to charges of unconstitutionality.
- In view of the reasoning adopted by us, we hold that clause 2(d) of Article 323A and clause 3(d) of Article 323B, to the extent they exclude the jurisdiction of the High Courts and the Supreme Court under Articles 226/227 and 32 of the Constitution, are unconstitutional. Section 28 of the Act and the “exclusion of jurisdiction” clauses in all other legislations enacted under the aegis of Articles 323A and 323B would, to the same extent, be unconstitutional. The jurisdiction conferred upon the High Courts under Articles 226/227 and upon the Supreme Court under Article 32 of the Constitution is a part of the inviolable basic structure of our Constitution. While this jurisdiction cannot be ousted, other courts and Tribunals may perform a supplemental role in discharging the powers conferred by Articles 226/227 and 32 of the Constitution.
The Tribunals created under Article 323A and Article 323B of the Constitution are possessed of the competence to test the constitutional validity of statutory provisions and rules. All decisions of these Tribunals will, however, be subject to scrutiny before a Division Bench of the High Court within whose jurisdiction the Tribunal concerned falls. The Tribunals will, nevertheless, continue to act like courts of first instance in respect of the areas of law for which they have been constituted. It will not, therefore, be open for litigants to directly approach the High Courts even in cases where they question the vires of statutory legislations (except where the legislation which creates the particular Tribunal is challenged) by overlooking the jurisdiction of the Tribunal concerned.Section 5(6) of the Act is valid and constitutional and is to be interpreted in the manner we have indicated.