Lack of vested right to effective judicial review from orders of the Armed Forces Tributnal (AFT): IESM letter to PM/RM/LAW MINISTER/COAS/CNS/CAS
Dated: 11 April 2015
Shri Narendra Modi
Hon’ble Prime Minister of India
Prime Minister’s Office (PMO)
New Delhi – 110 001
Shri Manohar Parrikar
Hon’ble Raksha Mantri
104, South Block,
Shri. D.V. Sadananda Gowda
Hon’ble Minister for Law & Justice
Room No. 401, A Wing,
4th Floor, Shastri Bhavan,
New Delhi – 110001
LACK OF VESTED RIGHT OF EFFECTIVE JUDICIAL REVIEW FROM ORDERS OF THE ARMED FORCES TRIBUNAL (AFT)
The Hon’ble Supreme Court on 11 March 2015 pronounced a decision in a case wherein it was held that orders passed by the Armed Forces Tribunal (AFT) would not be challenged by litigants in Hon’ble High Courts but only in the Supreme Court. The judgement was passed on an appeal filed by the Ministry of Defence (and perhaps also the Army HQ) during the time of the last Government. We also have reasonable information to believe that one of the grounds raised by the MoD/Army in the appeal for denying the right of judicial remedy like other citizens of India was that Fundamental Rights can be restricted/abrogated under Article 33 of the Constitution for defence personnel and hence a judicial remedy under writ jurisdiction of High Court would not be available. If it is true that this argument was raised by the MoD/Army, then it is the most unfortunate that the system itself is pleading for placing defence personnel on a lower pedestal than other citizens and pleading before the Hon’ble SC that the military community does not deserve the enjoyment of fundamental rights like others. It is a well known fact that Article 33 only operates during performance of duties to maintain discipline and has no connection with right to access of justice. It is also well known that the majority of cases in the AFT pertain to retired personnel, military widows and their families and hence Article 33 even otherwise has no applicability. This is also against the spirit of Article 39A of the Constitution which underlines equal justice for all citizens.
While in the beginning, there was an attempt to convince us that the decision will lead to ‘quicker’ justice to defence personnel, on closer and deeper examination of the issue, the following real facts and fallouts emerge:
1. There is actually no right of appeal to the Supreme Court from AFT orders as per AFT Act since an appeal only lies in exceptional cases involving ‘point of law of general public importance’ vide Section 31 of AFT Act, hence what has been pleaded before the SC is that AFT should become the court of first instance as well as the court of last instance, leaving defence personnel, veterans and widows remediless since it is well known that 99.9% of cases can never involve ‘public importance’ questions. The decision will not lead to ‘quicker’ justice but in reality remove all chances and channels of challenge/appeal against AFT decisions. Can this bogey of ‘quicker’ justice be raised at the price of fundamental rights of accessible justice and remedy to citizens?
2. It is well known that almost all such litigants cannot afford litigation in SC due to its prohibitive cost and the aura itself of being the highest court of the country. It is not understood how the defence ministry expects poor litigants including disabled soldiers and widows from all over the country to travel to Delhi and engage lawyers in SC to fight their cases. Most of the cases in the AFT involve issues such as disability benefits, pension, minor allowances, pay fixation, ACRs etc and litigants would now be expected to suffer in silence if they feel that they have not got justice from AFT.
3. Defence personnel, veterans, widows and families have been deprived of their basic right of access to justice due to the plea raised by the MoD/Army wherein while all citizens of the country would have access to multiple tiers of justice, not even one tier would be available to us. Even civil govt employees aggrieved by orders of Central Administrative Tribunal (CAT) can approach the HC if they are dissatisfied and then further the SC, whereas similar access has been denied to us and after an order of the AFT even the SC cannot be approached as a matter of vested right unless there is involvement of a point of general public importance.
4. We hereby express our dismay on the attempt of the official system to convey to the SC that fundamental rights of the military community should be restricted or abrogated. We are disappointed that the system itself by raising the plea of Article 33 is attempting to prove that defence personnel, ex-servicemen and their families are lower than the ordinary person on the street. This will have disastrous consequences in the years to come. If the MoD/Army makes such averments pleading for taking away the fundamental rights of their own members and former members and their families, then it is extremely unfortunate.
5. It is well known that the AFT functions under the control of the MoD and even Members of AFT are appointed by the MoD and selected by a selection committee which has the Defence Secretary as its member. AFT has also not been given civil contempt powers to ensure compliance of its orders. In other words, an ineffectual body has been created which functions under the MoD and then now on the plea of the MoD it has been assured that there is no effective appeal making it an all supreme body.
In light of the above, while expressing dissatisfaction at the stand and damaging stance of the MoD and the Army in the said case which has led to such a situation, we request you to kindly abrogate Sections 30 and 31 of the AFT Act so that AFT orders can be challenged on the lines of the Central Administrative Tribunal (CAT) thereby making justice accessible and practical for defence personnel, ex-servicemen, widows and their families.
Maj Gen Satbir Singh, SM (Retd)