4,500 cases pending before Tribunal

More than 4,500 cases are pending before various branches of the Armed Forces Tribunal (AFT), exposing pitfalls in the justice delivery mechanism in the armed forces. To make matters worse, AFT orders are often violated since the tribunal does not have any civil contempt power.

As on September 30, last year, 4,605 cases were pending before nine branches of the tribunal, including the principal branch in Delhi with 385 pending cases. The maximum number of pending cases was in Chandigarh (1,565), followed by Lucknow (1,088) and Jaipur (785).

The backlog is an upshot of seven posts lying vacant, one retired officer of the armed forces and six retired high court judges. Now, the tribunal is operating with half its strength.

Notwithstanding the vacancies, the Defence Ministry plans to launch four new AFT benches at Srinagar, Patna, Hyderabad and Jabalpur. But filling six vacancies with members of the judiciary is a big challenge because unlike other tribunals, members of the Bar are not eligible to become a judicial member of the AFT.

The AFT was set up through an act of Parliament in 2007 to provide quicker and less expensive justice to members of the army, navy and air force, as all service matters were to be heard only by the AFT and not any other court.

The AFT’s principal branch is located in Delhi and there are eight regional branches in Jaipur, Chandigarh, Lucknow, Guwahati, Kolkata, Chennai, Kochi and Mumbai. There are 15 courts in nine benches. Each court has a judicial and a service official. Execution of the AFT orders, however, has become problematic since the tribunal does not have civil contempt powers. Consequently, the tribunal cannot compel parties involved in a litigation to obey its orders and no punitive action can be taken for breaching an undertaking given to the tribunal.

The armed forces have opposed the defence ministry’s proposal to amend the Armed Forces Tribunal Act, 2007, purported to equip the AFT with civil contempt power. They argued that the move would be counter-productive.

“Civil contempt cases are by name against senior commanders and commanding officers. Can you imaging a unit carrying out counter-infiltration or counter-terrorist operations without the commanders and CO who is missing frequently for such summons from the court. We will have serious operational problems,” Vice-Chief of the Army, Lt Gen S K Singh, told the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Defence, which was reviewing the amendments. Similar views were echoed by the navy and air force vice-chiefs. The department of ex-servicemen welfare has also opposed the idea.

Hearing the service officers, ministries and legal experts, the panel suggested giving civil contempt powers to the AFT with regard to cases of retired defence personnel only.
“No serving defence officer should be made to appear before the tribunal for civil contempt,” it recommended, insisting that the defence ministry could revisit the provision later if required.

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