MoD ignores High Court's directive to place Armed Forces Tribunal under Ministry of Law
By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 23 Aug 13
The Punjab & Haryana High Court today issued contempt notices to the Defence Secretary and the Secretary (Justice) in the Law Ministry for not implementing court directions to place the Armed Forces Tribunal (AFT) under the Ministry of Law and Justice (MoLJ). The officials must respond by Sept 6.
The AFT is an independent judicial tribunal that soldiers must petition for justice before approaching the civil courts. However, since 2009, when it was set up through the Armed Forces Tribunal Act, 2007, the AFT has functioned under the Ministry of Defence (MoD).
That led Chandigarh-based lawyer, Major Navdeep Singh, to file a public interest litigation (PIL) before the Punjab & Haryana High Court, highlighted a conflict of interest --- since the MoD was the respondent in every case before the AFT, how could it oversee the tribunal? In Nov 2012, the high court directed that the AFT be overseen by the MoLJ, not the MoD.
The MoD responded with a Special Leave Petition in the Supreme Court, seeking a stay on the Punjab & Haryana High Court’s decision. The apex court neither stayed the decision, nor issued a notice.
The government also set up an “Inter Ministerial Group” to look into the transfer of control of tribunals to the MoLJ.
The contempt petition pointed out that implementation of court judgments was not dependent upon the opinion of an “Inter Ministerial Group”. The contempt petition also alleged that the MoD was interfering with judicial functioning and violating law by “approving” appointments of AFT members, though the procedure does not require MoD approval.
This newspaper has reported (Apr 2, 2013, “RTI reveals MoD largesse to Armed Forces Tribunal”), how the MoD handed out largesse to AFT members --- paying Rs 67 lakhs for five “official foreign visits” by the AFT chairperson and members; and granting canteen shopping facilities to retired judges who are “Judicial Members” on AFT benches. Being civilians, the judges are not entitled to these.
Interestingly, the MoLJ has supported the idea of bringing the AFT, as well as tribunals in other ministries, under its jurisdiction. In an affidavit filed before the high court, the MoLJ stated that it had tried since 1997 to set up a Central Tribunal Division (CTD), but was opposed by most ministries and departments.