National Taxation Tribunal law is unconstitutional, rules apex court
Terms it the ultimate encroachment on the exclusive domain of superior courts
The Supreme Court on Thursday declared as unconstitutional a law under which a national tribunal was to be set up to decide tax-related cases by taking away the jurisdiction of High Courts in such matters.
A five-Judge Constitution Bench comprising Chief Justice RM Lodha and Justices JS Khehar, J Chelameswar, AK Sikri and Rohinton Nariman held that the law, the National Tax Tribunal Act, was the ultimate encroachment on the exclusive domain of the superior Courts of Record.
The UPA-I had enacted the law paving the way for the creation of National Tax Tribunals, which would have helped reduce pendency of tax cases before High Courts. Tax experts say this decision could impact speedier disposal of pending cases that run into thousands of crores of rupees.
The Bench passed the order on a batch of petitions filed by the Madras Bar Association and others challenging the constitutional validity of the NTT Act contending that there was a grave danger that the judiciary would be substituted by quasi-judicial tribunals functioning as departments of ministries.
Writing the main judgment, Justice Khehar said: "The Parliament has the power to enact legislation and to vest adjudicatory functions, earlier vested in the High Court, with an alternative court/tribunal. Exercise of such power by the Parliament would not per se violate the basic structure of the Constitution.
Conform to standards
"The basic structure of the Constitution will stand violated if, while enacting legislation pertaining to transfer of judicial power, the Parliament does not ensure that the newly created court/tribunal conforms with the salient characteristics and standards of the court sought to be substituted…"
"The National Tax Tribunal encroaches upon the power of higher judiciary, which can only decide issues involving substantial laws and not a tribunal." Justice Nariman wrote in a separate but concurring judgment.
The Bench said: "It is obvious that substantial questions of law which relate to taxation would also involve many areas of civil and criminal law… It is therefore not correct to say that taxation, being a specialised subject, can be dealt with by a tribunal. All substantial questions of law have, under our constitutional scheme, to be decided by the superior courts and the superior courts alone.
Verdict on tax tribunal law may delay cases
The Supreme Court's move to strike down the National Tax Tribunal as "unconstitutional" will impact speedier disposal of appeals before High Courts, say tax experts.
This verdict is certainly a legal victory and in the bargain may turn out to be a loss for taxpayers, as huge number of tax cases are pending before High Courts, Aseem Chawla, Partner, MPC Legal, a law firm, told BusinessLine .
R Sekar, Partner, Deloitte, Haskins & Sells LLP, said the ruling may be appreciated for upholding Constitutional principles and judicial hierarchy. However, the verdict will go against the concept or intention of setting up of tribunals by the Government for speedy disposal of appeals, he said.
Now the Government will have to find a way of ensuring the speedier disposal of appeals, Sekar said, adding that the creation of NTT and constitution of NTT was a step in the right direction.
The Apex Court on Thursday held that NTT cannot decide on the matters involving substantial questions of law and also that Tribunals cannot take away the power of High Court.
The NTT Act "crosses the boundary" & is unconstitutional. CAs/CSs are specialists on accounts & facts and are not capable of arguing/ deciding 'Substantial Questions Of Law'
The Full Bench of the Supreme Court had to consider whether the National Tax Tribunals Act, 2005, which sought to take away the jurisdiction of the High Courts in tax matters was constitutional. The Full Bench has struck down the entire Act as being unconstitutional on the ground that though "tribunalization" has been allowed subject to safeguards, the NTT Act "crosses the boundary" and "encroaches the exclusive domain" of the High Courts. In the course of the judgement, the Supreme Court had to consider whether Chartered Accountants could be appointed Members of the NTT and whether s. 13(1) of the Act which permitted Chartered Accountants to represent a party to an appeal before the NTT was valid in law. It also had to consider the application by the Company Secretaries that they are equal in all respects to the CAs and should also be permitted to appear and plead before the NTT. HELD by the Full Bench:
A perusal of the reported judgements shows that while deciding tax related disputes, provisions of different laws on diverse subjects had to be taken into consideration. The Members of the NTT would most definitely be confronted with the legal issues emerging out of Family Law, Hindu Law, Mohammedan Law, Company Law, Law of Partnership, Law related to Territoriality, Law related to Trusts and Societies, Contract Law, Law relating to Transfer of Property, Law relating to Intellectual Property, Interpretation of Statutes, and other Miscellaneous Provisions of Law, from time to time. The NTT besides the aforesaid statutes, will not only have to interpret the provisions of the three statutes, out of which appeals will be heard by it, but will also have to examine a challenge to the vires of statutory amendments made in the said provisions, from time to time. They will also have to determine in some cases, whether the provisions relied upon had a prospective or retrospective applicability. Keeping in mind the fact, that in terms of s. 15 of the NTT Act, the NTT would hear appeals from the Income Tax Appellate Tribunal and the CESTAT only on "substantial questions of law", it is difficult for us to appreciate the propriety of representation, on behalf of a party to an appeal, through either Chartered Accountants or Company Secretaries, before the NTT. The determination at the hands of the NTT is shorn of factual disputes. It has to decide only "substantial questions of law". In our understanding, Chartered Accountants and Company Secretaries would at best be specialists in understanding and explaining issues pertaining to accounts. These issues would, fall purely within the realm of facts. We find it difficult to accept the prayer made by the Company Secretaries to allow them, to represent a party to an appeal before the NTT. Even insofar as the Chartered Accountants are concerned, we are constrained to hold that allowing them to appear on behalf of a party before the NTT, would be unacceptable in law. We accordingly reject the claim of Company Secretaries, to represent a party before the NTT. We simultaneously hold s. 13(1), insofar as it allows Chartered Accountants to represent a party to an appeal before the NTT, as unconstitutional and unsustainable in law.
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