[The Viewpoint] Vacancies at various Appellate Tribunals: Cause for concern?

The PMLA Appellate Tribunal at New Delhi has been vacant for over two years, resulting in multiple proceedings being instituted before various High Courts for interim relief.
Ragini Singh
Ragini Singh

The issue of vacancies at appellate tribunals constituted under various statutes has become a matter of concern for the legal community.

The courts have time and again pulled up the Central government for failing to fill the vacancies in a timely fashion.

Earlier this year, a Bombay High Court Division Bench of Chief Justice Dipankar Datta and Justice MS Karnik, while hearing pleas seeking directions to the Centre to appoint a Chairperson to the Debts Recovery Appellate Tribunal, Mumbai, expressed its displeasure at the lack of substantial progress in the matter.

In particular, the appellate tribunal dealing with matters under the Prevention of Money Laundering Act, 2002 (PMLA), having its principal seat at New Delhi, has been vacant for over two years, and continues to remain vacant, resulting in multiple proceedings being instituted before various High Courts for interim relief.

Due to the inoperative appellate tribunal, litigants are being deprived of their statutory remedy to prefer appeals, and as a result are constrained to file writ petitions invoking Articles 226 and 227 of the Constitution of India seeking various reliefs, leading to the already over-burdened High Courts being further inundated by otherwise avoidable litigation.

A prime example of this was seen in the case of Guru Commodity Services Private Limited, where a plea was filed before the Bombay High Court seeking to quash a provisional attachment order dated July 1, 2021 and the consequential confirmation of the same dated March 29, 2022, passed by the Directorate of Enforcement and its adjudicating authority respectively, attaching the property of the petitioner.

One of the preliminary grounds taken in the petition filed through RRA Legal and Ragini Singh & Associates was the inability of the appellate authority to take up the matter and grant an effective hearing of the appeal within the stipulated period, since it had no Chairperson. The sole reason to approach the High Court was the complete helplessness of the petitioner and his inability to approach the appellate tribunal in Delhi to seek interim reliefs against coercive action of the Directorate of Enforcement.

Senior Counsel Aabad Ponda, along with former ITAT member Advocate Ashwani Taneja, submitted on behalf of the petitioner that the Bombay High Court had previously passed orders in other similar matters directing that the vacant possession of the properties in question will not be demanded by the Enforcement Directorate, nor shall any coercive steps be taken with respect to the properties which are the subject matter of attachment.

Allowing the writ petition, the Division Bench of Justices Revati Mohite Dere and Madhav Jamdar, by an order dated April 25, 2022, directed that no coercive steps be taken apropos the subject properties till such time the appellate authority decides the stay application of the petitioner. The petitioner was accordingly directed to file an appeal within the stipulated time along with an interim application for stay.

Appellate tribunals are the need of the hour, since various High Courts are becoming a centre for otherwise avoidable lawsuits for the purpose of seeking interim protection. Not only are the litigants being deprived of their statutory right to appeal, various High Courts are also being inundated by cases which should never have been before them in the first place.

Ragini Singh is a dual qualified lawyer (India and United Kingdom) and founder of Ragini Singh and Associates.

Disclosure: The author appeared in one of the matters mentioned in the piece.

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