In an otherwise inconsequential period in military justice, a Full Bench of the Armed Forces Tribunal, headed by the Chairperson, has rendered an important decision on territorial jurisdiction.
The irony of it all is that ideally the decision was not at all required since the lynchpin rule itself is quite clear on the subject, but the Bench was forced into the question due to apparent obduracy of the Central Government in objecting to the subject time and again, and also some stray decisions rendered by different benches on the same topic taking a different view, notwithstanding the fact that the matter had been settled by Constitutional Courts.
Rule 6 of the Armed Forces Tribunal (Procedure) Rules, 2008, provides, inter alia, that a person can file his petition (Application) at a Bench where he is posted or was last posted or where the cause of action or part of cause of action had arisen.
Of course, there are very many cases wherein the Petitioner is residing at some other place while the part of cause of action or the whole cause of action lies somewhere else, and as per a plain reading of the rule, it is the Petitioner’s choice to opt for a bench. The same is also an established proposition of law since a Petitioner is dominus liits in a litigation initiated by him.
However, more often than not, there used to be opposition by the Central Government when defence personnel filed cases at benches under whose jurisdiction they were not residing but where the cause of action had arisen. For example, a Petitioner may be posted under the jurisdiction of the Chandigarh Bench but the rejection of his claim had occurred at the Ministry of Defence at Delhi, in such a situation, it is the choice of the Petitioner to either file his case at the Principal Bench, Delhi or Chandigarh Bench since he is the dominus litis and it is his option where to invoke the jurisdiction. Some Benches of the AFT however, agreeing with the objection of the Union of India, dismissed such petitions for the reason of lack of jurisdiction though the Rule was absolutely clearly on the subject and gave an option to the Petitioner. The disturbing aspect of the issue was also that in certain cases, the dismissal orders by certain benches had been overturned by the High Court but still the benches continued to defy the law laid down by the High Court by attempting artificial distinction of the same.
The Full Bench has also shattered the averment of the Government that Petitioners would indulge in “bench-hunting” by this kind of an option. The Full Bench has very rightly stated that if that be so, then the Union of India can also be condemned for “bench avoiding”. The Full Bench has also observed that once the view of a coordinate bench rejecting a petition on the aspect of jurisdiction was overruled by the High Court, the said bench should have refrained from taking the same view again.
The decision, besides rightly laying down the law on jurisdiction and clarifying it for future litigants, also throws light on another dangerous trend, and that is, of certain benches of the Tribunal taking views which are contrary to law laid down by Constitutional Courts, that is, by the High Courts and the Supreme Court. Once the view of a Tribunal is overruled by a High Court or the Supreme Court, then judicial propriety and also the principle of judicial certainty demand that such benches should bow down to the majesty of Constitutional Courts and refrain from letting their prestige dictate their judgements rather than law laid down by Constitutional Courts. Otherwise, not only are litigants burdened with expensive litigation to higher courts (the Supreme Court at present, which is practically inaccessible) but also result in chaos in the system wherein the law remains unsettled for litigants approaching different benches of the Tribunal though the law in reality may be well settled by Constitutional Courts. When a decision is overturned by a higher judicial forum, judges of the lower forum should abide by it and not take it as an affront by indulging in unethical rounds of artificial distinction to reiterate their own old view which stands overruled. This tendency needs to be nipped in the bud.