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Gross Delays In Revenue Appeals: Supreme Court Suggests To Centre A Consolidated, Pan-India Online Portal To Monitor Litigations

Mehal Jain
15 Feb 2021 8:54 AM GMT
Gross Delays In Revenue Appeals: Supreme Court Suggests To Centre A Consolidated, Pan-India Online Portal To Monitor Litigations

In the wake of the incessant instances of delay on behalf of the Centre in litigating revenue matters, the Supreme Court on Monday recommended that the Union Finance Ministry come up with a pan-India online portal where all collectors and commissioners are linked with the CESTAT, showing the stage of proceedings, the orders passed, the deadline for filing the appeal, so as to provide for...

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In the wake of the incessant instances of delay on behalf of the Centre in litigating revenue matters, the Supreme Court on Monday recommended that the Union Finance Ministry come up with a pan-India online portal where all collectors and commissioners are linked with the CESTAT, showing the stage of proceedings, the orders passed, the deadline for filing the appeal, so as to provide for a monitoring mechanism.

Noting that its attention has repeatedly been drawn to as many as 400-500 days' delay in filing revenue appeals, the bench of Justices D. Y. Chandrachud and M. R. Shah had last week reprimanded the government officers for "being in league with the assesses", in deliberately filing appeals before the High Courts in the first instance despite the legal position being that appeals from the CESTAT lie before the Supreme Court, and eventually approaching the top court at a much delayed stage. The bench had observed that when the court then refuses to allow the condonation of the delay, the burden is pushed to the Supreme Court with the officers asserting that they had moved the court in an appeal but it was not entertained. The bench had required SG Tushar Mehta to appear before it on Monday.
When the matter was taken up on Monday, Justice Chandrachud remarked at the outset that the court does not deem it as an adversarial proceeding in calling upon the SG to address the court. "It is not our intent to castigate any officers or to say that they are deliberately doing it", said the judge.
"We have seen your submissions. Some work has been done. A meeting has been held with the chairpersons of the CBDT and the CBIC, officials from the finance ministry...(SG Tushar Mehta pointed out that the law secretary was also part of the meeting)...We are happy with the process initiated by the Union of India to streamline the filing of appeals in revenue matters", began Justice Chandrachud.
"The possibility that some of the officers may be doing it deliberately also cannot be ruled out...We are in fact happy that Your Lordships have taken up this issue. We are very grateful. There is no opposition to correcting the system. It is also in the government's interest. ", asserted the SG.
"Crores of rupees are at stake. Ultimately, it is the public interest which suffers. And this is when you have a legal team to guide you. How can you file before the wrong forum? Then you say that you are not knowing the law? There is 300, 400, 500 days' delay?", commented Justice Shah.
"Is the appeal filed only to get the seal of the Supreme Court? What is your law department doing? Who is working in the central agency on this? (The SG replied that it is the Ministry of Law and Justice)...What are the steps which have been taken? Why can't there be a common meeting of the secretary and the commissioners? Why must the files be sent from one office to another? Then for vetting? And then to the central agency, which sends it back? Some corrective measures have to be taken", observed justice Shah.
Justice Chandrachud also stressed that there are several tiers through which files have to pass in being processed and that it is advisable to instead have a single, consolidated committee to review the entire process.
"What we have produced before Your Lordships is only the broad outline of the discussions. It is subject to the suggestions and directions of Your Lordships. Your Lordships have rightly observed that there are several layers which must be curtailed to one. I have given a proposal in this behalf- Firstly, I have suggested that every table clear the file in one week. If the law officers or the other officers need more time, they have to record the reasons for the same. Further, instead of circulating the files between three or four departments, there can be one consolidated committee to meet once a week. It will consist of a conversant government lawyer who will see if the issue is covered and if there is a need to go to court. But the view of the ministry is that the matter should go to the Law Minister independently. It is being considered presently", submitted the SG.
Justice Chandrachud noted that the Supreme Court is getting appeals from the High Court and the CESTAT directly. "How can we use technology to shorten the entire process?", he wondered. The judge explained that the E-Committee of the Supreme Court has inculcated a system of open APIs, where all links for the government authorities are available and data can be directly retrieved as regards all judgements. "You are aware of your litigation everywhere. There is no need for an application for a certified copy. Now, the CESTAT is not part of our Case Information System, but as part of the E-committee of the Supreme Court, we have done it for the judiciary, for 17,000 courts across the country.", he elaborated.
"Similarly, the government should also come up with a pan-India online portal, a consolidated platform with all collectors, commissioners across india being linked to the will show the stage of proceeding, the order passed, the deadline for filing the appeal, if there is any delay, immediately there will be a red or orange flag and the delay can be plugged. The government can monitor the progress of the collectors, the commissioners, the filings in the CESTAT. If any officer is failing, there is a monitoring mechanism for the central government", opined Justice Chandrachud.
"The finance ministry has incorporated technology in a large way so far as filing and processing of returns are concerned. But the judicial arm has remained untouched. You may even engage with the National Informatics Centre at Pune. I coordinate with the Director General at least on a weekly basis", he continued.
"There is a need for independent monitoring through an automated process- to keep track of the commissioners who are keeping any matters pending, the reasons for the same, if there is any unnecessary delay. Please call the Pune team. They have done remarkable work for the judicial organ of the State", noted Justice Chandrachud. The SG urged that the Court request NIC to join the next meeting and help in any way they can.
He assured the court that the groundwork has been laid, the government also has the will to work in this direction, that the resources are not an issue and they are eager to sort out this perennial problem. "The process will be a great deterrent also...if a CIT knows he is being monitored, he will be reluctant in not taking a decision within the time frame", added the SG.
Justice Shah also recommended intimating the CBDT of orders passed immediately the following day, so that they have a head start as to if it is an important matter which requires the filing of an appeal.
Mr. Mehta expressed that though they are looking at the finance ministry issue at the moment, the same model has to be replicated in all departments. Justice Shah agreed that it has to be part of the litigation policy of the government. Justice Chandrachud also agreed that a similar initiative can be undertaken for the other departments also where there is a problem of delay, including the state governments, considering that under the GST regime, some taxes are exclusively collected and adjudicated upon by the states.
"This is not just about issuing a circular – a robust technology-based platform is needed. The stakes of the government are high. As are those of the assessees", reflected the judge. The SG conceded that thousands of crores of rupees are involved in the matters of revenue appeals. "We have the resources, the infrastructure. We have done so for the judiciary. It is now time to bring the revenue arm of the government of India on board. This is not a massive project", Justice Chandrachud commented.
Justice Chandrachud opined that orders of commissioners and all officers below the ranks of a commissioner may be placed on the online portal. In this behalf, he cited his own experience as an ASG before being elevated to the bench. Justice Shah added that during his time in Gujarat, the judges had seen to it that there is no delay at all in the filing of revenue appeals and had worked on it for two years to improve the situation. Mr. Mehta pointed out that in some cases, even the application for procuring the certified copy is filed after four months.
"Once this is done, the Supreme Court CIS can also be linked with the government of India portal to retrieve any information", suggested Justice Chandrachud.
The judge indicated the inter-operable criminal justice system between the E-Committee of the Supreme Court and the Department of Justice, where any FIR lodged in any part of the country is available, as is the chargesheet and data as to the stage of the trial, to obliviate problems in the administration of criminal justice. Mr. Mehta pointed out that such a system also aids transparency.
"We are encouraging all local authorities and departments of state governments to benefit from the open APIs. We have written to the Chief Justices to ask ministries to benefit from it- they can track their lawyers' bills, who appeared and who didn't, the cost of litigation etc. It aids revenue productivity and is helping the government to monitor its own interests. As of now, we have not opened it to the private litigants but only to the the largest litigant, the government", elaborated Justice Chandrachud.
Mr. Mehta agreed that the public interest suffers if there is no such system or a deficient system in place.
Justice Chandrachud clarified once again that the Court does not intend this entire proceeding as adversarial at all.
"We are not seeing it like that. In fact, we are happy. We are grateful for Your Lordships' indulgence. And we hope something positive will come out of it", said the SG.

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