New Delhi: All 20 benches of the Railway Claims Tribunal (RCT) have been functioning without judicial members, leaving it to the sole technical member in each — most of them retired employees of the Railways — to single-handedly adjudicate cases of compensation against the department.
Every bench hearing claims comprises two members — one judicial and one technical.
Among the 20 tribunals, six do not have either of these two members (judicial or technical) to hear out litigants, forcing the staff at these RCT benches to simply adjourn cases.
The benches set up under The Railways Claims Tribunal Act, 1987 are mandated to hear cases of compensation on account of loss, damage of goods etc as well as due to accidental deaths and injury.
Lawyers appearing before these tribunals said the existing arrangement raises doubts over the procedural fairness adopted to hear and decide matters, besides violating the Supreme Court’s 2019 judgment that categorically said tribunals should have no departmental control.
If the tribunals are presided over by a former employee of the department, he or she is unlikely to render an impartial view in a matter, they argued.
The RCT vacancies have continued despite the central government’s promise to the apex court in June to expedite appointments. The assurance was given while the Supreme Court rejected judicial member Rajan Sharma’s plea to extend his tenure. While arguing his case, Sharma had highlighted the vacancies in the RCT benches.
According to the Indian Railways Advocates Bar Association, the vacancies have slowed down the decision-making process in the RCT benches. Around 25,000 cases are pending before the tribunals, with the oldest one dating back to 2007.
The association is now contemplating moving the top court to expedite the recruitment process, which, according to procedure, is to be initiated by the Railway Board.
A senior railway ministry official, who has served in the RCT in the past, told ThePrint on condition of anonymity that there was no resistance within the Railways to appoint judicial members, but the process of appointment for judicial members was “extremely long”.
When reached for a comment, the railway ministry spokesperson said the selection committee “couldn’t find adequate number of judicial members”. “The proposal for the 5 or 7 members selected is with ACC (Appointment Cabinet Committee) but not yet cleared. We have initiated the next selection process for the unfilled vacancies plus the ones that have arisen in the mean time.”
RCT set up for quick disposal of cases
According to the official website of the Indian Railways, The Railway Claims Tribunal Act, 1987 “was enacted to provide speedy disposal of claims against the Railway Administration”.
A former high court judge is appointed as the chairman of all RCTs, who presides the principal bench in Delhi. Four vice-chairmen, also former high court judges, head the regional benches.
The coordinate benches are led by the judicial member, a lawyer who should be qualified to be a high court judge or is a member of the Indian Legal Service or has held the post of a civil judge for three years.
A former railway employee, who has held a post equivalent to a joint secretary level in the central government and for three years, is suitable for the technical member’s post.
The RCT chairman has utilised the special powers granted to him/her under the law to let technical members head benches and overcome the legal anomaly created on account of vacancies.
Selections for vacancies yet to be finalised
The Railway Claims Tribunal Act, 1987 also authorises a panel led by a Supreme Court judge to select judicial members for RCTs. Once the names are finalised, the list is sent to the railway ministry and then to the Appointment Cabinet Committee (ACC) for a final approval. A formal notification can be issued only after the ACC clears the file.
N.K. Gupta, secretary of the Indian Railways Advocates Bar Association, told ThePrint that vacancies that arose in April 2018 are yet to be filled. It took a year for the panel to recommend the appropriate candidates to the government, which has still not cleared the names.
“The government is sitting over the file that was finalised by a selection panel headed by a sitting Supreme Court judge. This shows the executive’s lack of respect for the judiciary,” Gupta added.
He pointed out how the government fast-tracked appointments of technical members after it gave an undertaking to the Supreme Court to do so, but continues to drag its feet over judicial members.
“On 27 April, the government had promised before the top court to make 17 fresh appointments in 15 days. Thereafter, in Ranjan Sharma’s case, the central government’s advocate confirmed fresh appointments of 12 technical members, and with regard to judicial members the advocate said the file was before ACC, which could not assemble due to Covid-19. The court was assured that the matter will be taken up at the earliest,” Gupta said.
Pointing to this delay, the senior railway official quoted above said names of five judicial members were sent to the ACC in October 2018 but they are yet to be cleared. “So, one cannot say that the Railways deliberately side-lines judicial members.”
The official also said relevant records from different high courts has to be received for appointment of judicial members and that takes time. “With technical members, since they come from the Railways, the Railway Board has all their records, and their applications get processed in no time,” he added.
“Between releasing vacant posts for judicial members, conducting their scrutiny, interviews, completing the clearance by a SC judge-headed search-cum-selection committee, it takes more than 200 days at the very least,” the former RCT official said.
SC ruling said technical members can only assist
The government, meanwhile, has advertised for fresh posts, inviting applications from experienced lawyers, which the bar association claimed was against rules. “Before calling for fresh applications, the government must notify the appointments that are already under process,” said Ila Choudhary, joint secretary of the Indian Railways Advocates Bar Association.
Both Gupta and Choudhary noted that a technical member cannot be expected to deliver a judicious decision. Moreover, for the tribunals to function in the absence of a judicial member is a blatant attempt to overrule the Supreme Court’s 2019 judgment.
While striking down the rules framed to appoint members to 19 statutory tribunals, the top court had ordered all of them to be under a single nodal agency, preferably under the Ministry of Law and Justice.
It had specifically held that technical members will only assist judicial members as the former do not have experience of judicial work. Choudhary said the government’s enthusiasm shown towards the appointment of technical members is in complete disregard to the doctrine of separation of power reiterated in the top court’s judgment.
(With Sanya Dhingra)
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