Armed Forces Tribunal: Mandate, Structure and Current Issues

Armed Forces Tribunal (AFT) is the military tribunal in India, established under Armed Forces Tribunal Act, 2007 to provide effective redressal mechanism for personnel of three armed forces. The act was passed on the basis of recommendation of 169th Law Commission Report and various Supreme Court directives.

Benches

The Principal Bench of AFT is located at New Delhi and there are eight regional benches at Chandigarh, Lucknow, Kolkata, Guwahati, Chennai, Kochi, Mumbai and Jaipur.

Composition

The AFT is composed of a Chairperson and two types of members viz. Judicial and Administrative. The number of both types of members is decided by Central Government. Normally, each bench as one judicial member and one administrative member. Tenure of Chairpersons and members is four years.

Qualification of Chairperson
  • The person holding the office of chairperson of AFT must have been either a retired judge of Supreme Court or a Retired chief justice of high court.
Qualification of Judicial Member
  • A judicial member should have been a judge of High Court.
Qualification of Administrative Member
  • An administrative member must have held the rank of Major General or above in army or equivalent rank in Navy or air force {Rear Admiral in Navy or Air Vice Marshal in Air Force} for at least three years and must have served for at least one year as Judge Advocate General in the Army or the Navy or the Air Force.

Jurisdiction

The important notes on jurisdiction of AFT are as follows:

  • The territorial jurisdiction of AFT covers entire country and covers the three armed forces of India viz. Army, Navy and Air Force. Paramilitary forces don’t come under its jurisdiction.
  • The AFT hears appeal against any order, decision, finding and sentence passed by Court Martial and related matters.
  • The Tribunal has power to grant bail to any person in military custody, with or without conditions. If the Tribunal finds sentence given by Court Martial unjust or excessive, it has power to remit the whole or part of the sentence, mitigate the punishments, commute the punishment to some lesser stringent punishment or enhance the punishment. It can also suspend the imprisonment and release the convict on parole.
  • AFT is considered to be a criminal court with respect to Indian Penal Code, and Code of Criminal Procedure.
  • Appeals against the decision of the AFT can be taken only in Supreme Court. High Courts are not allowed to entertain such appeals.

Issues Related to AFT

The major issues related to AFT for your examinations are as follows:

Question of criminal versus civil contempt power

In the above description, we have studied that the AFT has only criminal contempt powers and not civil contempt powers. Without civil contempt powers, it cannot enforce implementation of its decisions and orders. Due to this reason, the AFT is sometimes called a toothless tiger. We note here that currently, an amendment bill is pending in parliament which seeks to empower the AFT with same powers in respect of contempt of itself as a High Court.

Question of control by Law Ministry vs Defence Ministry

Currently, AFT comes under Ministry of Defence. There has been a tussle over shifting the administrative control of the Armed Forces Tribunal to the Ministry of Law and Justice. The primary reason of this shift is to MoD could influence its decision making and thus, such tribunals should be separated from their parent ministries. The SC had also given such directives in 2010 and had said that all the tribunals should not be attached to the respective ministries but should be placed under a separate single nodal department, preferably the Department of Legal Affairs. Thus, interest conflict is one reason that SC wanted the tribunals to be removed from being under respective ministries; this would add in their independent decision making.

Armed Forces Tribunal (Amendment) Bill, 2012

This is a bill to amend the 2007 act to make the following adjustments:

  • To increase the tenure of chairperson and members from four years to five years to give them more stability of tenure.
  • It also seeks to increase the retirement age of chairpersons and judicial members from 65 to 67 years.
  • To empower the AFT with civil contempt power, so that it can enforce implementation of its orders.

The above bill is pending and was supposed to be considered this year’s budget session. We can hope that this bill is passed anytime soon.

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