West indian people

10 steps to make quasi-judicial tribunals work for people

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There is a category of quasi-judicial bodies that are not touched upon in conversations about waiting for cases. These are usually handled by tax authorities and largely relate to land, rental, excise, arms, mining or preventive duties under the Code of Criminal Procedure. There is a hierarchy between these bodies and the usual judicial procedures such as appeal and review can be directed to higher authorities. Decisions of superior courts are binding, especially that of the highest court, for example the Board of Revenue in many states. The procedures for dealing with these cases have been defined in the Code of Civil Procedure. Many of us have horror stories about this – cases that go undecided for years.

The functioning of these bodies is of paramount importance as they deal with vital land and related matters. Their inability to administer prompt justice leads to the harassment of citizens, in addition to encouraging the criminal activities of unscrupulous elements. If we are aiming for the living comfort of citizens, we must not only ensure the reduction of licenses and regulations, but also make the adjudication by administrative authorities timely, accessible and affordable.

The diseases suffered by these agencies are far more serious than the judicial structures, since they are endowed with tax authorities which have several other functions. Usually, many of these offices are understaffed. Their involvement in functions such as law and order, protocol, coordination, and other administrative functions leave them much less time for judicial work. Their access to clerks and archivists is limited. Computers and video recorders are not available in many of these courts. Only a few states – such as Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan – have electronic platforms to support activities such as filing cases, publishing case lists and issuing summonses. Several of the presidents lack a good knowledge of the law and procedures – which has caused many officials many problems in sensitive matters such as those related to arms licensing.

The most critical problem facing these systems is the lack of adequate oversight and ownership by administrative and political leaders. Wait level or elimination speed data is not compiled in many states. That is why there are practically no attempts to increase the numbers. There is virtually no public scrutiny, for example by the press or the legislator.

What can be done to improve things? A multi-pronged action plan including legal, governance and human resource reforms is needed to move forward. I list 10 steps:

First, the government should make the effective operation of these agencies a priority and clearly articulate its position on the matter.

Second, detailed data on the operation of these agencies should be collected and published from time to time—at least once a year. These should be tabled in the relevant legislatures. These results should serve as a basis for decisions regarding the rationalization of the workforce. If the expectation exceeds a certain threshold, additional officials should be seconded to perform exclusively judicial functions. This data should be used to strengthen accountability.

Third, an electronic platform should be established to manage all ancillary work related to the administration of justice, such as filing complaints, issuing summonses, circulating files between courts, issuing copies judgments, etc. It could establish a solid basis for analyzing the functioning of these bodies and facilitating the publication of statistics.

Fourth, annual inspections of lower courts should be made mandatory. This should be an important indicator for evaluation by the higher authority. The inspections could become the basis for tailor-made training for presidents.

Fifth, interdisciplinary research on the functioning of these courts should be encouraged. This would identify areas for improvement such as legal reforms or issuing clear guidelines.

Sixth, regular training and orientation of contracting authorities should be undertaken from time to time. If it is possible to offer personalized guidance to contracting officers in their areas of weakness, the benefits are likely to be multiplied.

Seventh, the performance status index of these quasi-judicial tribunals be established and published. This would draw States’ attention to their performance relative to others and help them identify weak points.

Eighth, important decisions, guidelines and directives could be compiled and published on the portal of the summit arbitration forum such as the Board of Revenue. These would be useful to lower level agencies.

Ninth, more rigorous initial training of officials responsible for judicial work would be useful. Usually, training academies, at the central or state level, largely focus on executive magistrate courts, rather than tax courts. The importance of forensic work must be instilled in trainees and the skills and confidence to handle it must be developed.

Tenth, procedural reforms such as the minimization of adjournments, the mandatory filing of written arguments, and other similar reforms proposed by bodies such as the Law Commission for the Reform of the Code of Civil Procedure should be adopted by these adjudicative bodies.

This is too important a reform to be left unattended by governments at all levels. Otherwise, we would continue to make a mockery of our commitment to the comfort of life for citizens.

The author is Secretary, Rural Development, Government of India

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