The Supreme Court on Tuesday expressed satisfaction over the steps taken by the Government to fill up the vacancies of judicial members in various Armed Force Tribunals (AFT), which came under scanner following a claim that there was a complete breakdown of the system. After the government informed that three names have been cleared for members of AFT and four are in the pipeline, the apex court asked it to file a status report within four weeks elaborating about the filling up of 15 vacancies. The Centre, represented by Solicitor General Ranjit Kumar, also informed a bench of Chief Justice T S Thakur and Justice D Y Chandrachud that it has requested the Justice J S Khehar committee to consider five more names towards filling up vacancies in AFT, which has a total of 34 sanctioned posts. Last week, government had told the apex court, which had taken suo motu cognisance of the vacancies in various AFT, that the process of appointing judicial officers was going on.
Earlier, the AFT Bar Association had written to the Chief Justice seeking appointment of judicial members of AFTs, claiming that work there has almost come to a “standstill”. In the letter, copies of which were sent to Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar and Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad, Rajiv Manglik, Secretary of the AFT (PB) Bar Association, had said there were only five benches functional out of a total of 17, which had resulted in lack of access to justice to military personnel, disabled soldiers and even widows of defence personnel. “While it is claimed that there are not enough applicants for the posts, it is learnt that appointments already approved by the Selection Committee have not yet been notified,” the letter said. It said the reason articulated by government to create AFT was “speedy and less expensive dispensation of justice”, but with passing years, it emerges that perhaps the actual reason was simply to take out the jurisdiction of such matters from the inherently independent constitutional courts and bring them under a departmental tribunal functioning under the Defence Ministry.
It also said the biggest disappointment with the creation of AFT has come in the form of a lack of any effective remedy of judicial review over its orders, thereby making it the first and the last court for litigants. The letter said it was hard to imagine a disabled soldier or a widow in Kerala or West Bengal approaching the Supreme Court concerning his or her case involving a few hundred rupees and then trying to prove that the case involved a ‘point of law of general public importance’. Hence, while civilians got a three-tier system of justice and judicial review, their military counterparts were encumbered with only AFT, which is practically the court of first and the last instance, it said.