The Supreme Court has issued notice to the union government and agreed to hear a plea by an IAF martyr’s father challenging the constitutional validity of Sections 30 and 31 of the Armed Force Tribunal Act which bar any kind of appeal on AFT orders except in cases involving a “point of law of general public importance”.
The petition has been filed by Mohali-based Gurbax Singh Dhindsa, father of Late Flying Officer GS Dhindsa who died in a MIG-21 fighter aircraft crash at Srinagar in the aftermath of Kargil operations and who had been refused the correct pension by the defence accounts department. Though the AFT granted him the entitled pension, it refused to grant him interest from the date of death of his son. When Dhindsa wanted to approach the high court for seeking interest on the compensation, he was informed that the high courts had been barred from entertaining challenges to AFT orders by an SC verdict of March 2015 passed on a plea filed by the Central Government, and that the SC also could only hear AFT appeals involving ‘general public importance’.
Senior Advocate Arvind P Datar and Aishwarya Bhati, appearing for the petitioner. Have challenged the provisions of the act on the ground that the AFT has been rendered the first and the last court for litigants without any remedy or access against its orders. It has been stated that the situation was against the law laid down by SC’s Constitution Bench holding that a direct appeal to SC made justice inaccessible and unaffordable.
It has also been stated that the SC had earlier observed that litigants could not afford the cost and expenses of contesting litigation in the apex court and “suffer silently in the name of God by treating it their destiny”. The Petitioner has emphasized that the defence community could not be placed at a lower pedestal than other citizens who could challenge the order of the Central Administrative Tribunal in the high court and, if still not satisfied, to the SC. He has stated that it was not possible for litigants from various places to afford litigation in the country’s highest court for small sums and routine matters, whereas the HCs were accessible and affordable.
The Parliamentary Committee examining provisions of the AFT Bill in the year 2005 had recorded that though a direct appeal was being provided to the SC in questions involving general public importance, the High Courts would hear challenges against AFT orders on the lines of CAT. The HCs later stopped entertaining petitions after the SC verdict in 2015.
While it is extremely difficult for private litigants to approach the SC from AFT orders, the Ministry of Defence, due to availability of resources, keeps challenging most verdicts citing ‘general public importance’ in every case. As per a February 2016 report of Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy, while only 34 aggrieved litigants were able to file appeals in the SC in 2014, the Defence Ministry filed 890 appeals during the same period.
Many ex-servicemen organisations and legal experts had expressed concern over lack of access to high courts over AFT orders in routine cases. The AFT, which operates under the Defence Ministry, has also not been vested with powers of civil contempt and it was only after the intervention of the Punjab and Haryana High Court that benches of AFT started initiating coercive action against the Defence Ministry for execution of orders.