Facts of the Case
The petitioner, Goa Foundation, through a public interest writ petition filed before the High Court of Bombay, had challenged five office orders / notices issued by the National Green Tribunal (“NGT”) dated 06 September, 2021, 04 January, 2022, 11 April, 2022 and 27 April, 2022 and 26 August, 2022. It was contended in this petition that these notices had cumulatively resulted in cases from Goa, which were pending before the Western Zonal Bench of NGT at Pune, being abruptly taken up by a Special Bench sitting at New Delhi, without providing any good reason for doing so. The Special Bench comprised of members of Principal Bench and Western Zonal Bench.
Observations and Final Order
The High Court upheld the maintainability of this writ petition under Article 226 of the Constitution of India, as it noted that regardless of the issuance of these notices by the Principal Bench at New Delhi, the impact of these notices is directly on the Western Zonal Bench and those litigating before it. Thus, the writ jurisdiction of Bombay High Court cannot be curtailed by administrative situs of NGT's Principal Bench being located in New Delhi.
On the grounds relating to merits, the High Court observed that five notices issued by the NGT Principal Bench completely lacked clarity as to which matter will be heard by its Special Bench and which ones would be heard by the Zonal Benches and why. There was also no roster provided for the Special Bench. The High Court also observed that the constitution of the Special Bench with odd number of members is not permitted as per the National Green Tribunal Act, 2010 (“NGT Act”) and the National Green Tribunal (Practice and Procedure) Rules, 2011 (“NGT Rules”). The statutory framework provides that NGT's bench shall have equal number of judicial and expert members so that the total number of members is an even number. However, there is no provision which allows the chairperson to constitute a bench with odd number of members. A single member bench can only be constituted in exceptional circumstances. Moreover, it observed that when two members are available at Western Zonal Bench, statutory framework does not allow their cases to be heard by a larger bench of an odd number of members sitting at a different location especially where the number of expert members is not equal to the number of judicial members.
The High Court also noted that there were some cases listed in the causelist for the NGT Western Zonal Bench even when it was not functional, which were internally adjourned and thereafter, some of these cases were sent to the Northern Bench and the Central Bench. High Court also found that there is no source of power in the statutory framework providing jurisdiction of cases pertaining to Western Zone to the Northern Zone, especially when there are sufficient members available at the Western Zonal Bench to adjudicate these cases. These notices do not provide any reason for the Special Bench being a temporary arrangement until manpower crises is resolved at the Zonal Benches.
The High Court further observed that NGT Act and NGT Rules do not allow the Chairperson to randomly cherry-pick matters from any bench and withdraw them to itself or to a bench over which he presides. The legal framework vests such powers only with the Central Government which can do so through a notification. The argument that the Chairperson decides the distribution of business amongst members of the NGT sitting at different places is misconceived, as the correct interpretation is that in cases where there are multiple benches in one zone, the Chairperson could distribute work among such local benches. Hence, the Court found all these notices to be ultra vires the NGT Act and NGT Rules. The High Court also found these notices to be manifestly arbitrary as they failed to satisfy the key components for administration of justice, i.e. transparency, accountability and certainty.
Lastly, the High Court also remarked that true access to justice is ensured when the courts are brought closer to the litigant's door. Therefore, instead of moving matters further away from Goa to New Delhi, it would be better to set up a circuit bench at Panaji to bring NGT closer to litigants, lawyers and people who approach NGT to seek environmental justice.
On the basis of the aforesaid grounds, the Bombay High Court quashed and set side all the five notices issued by the Principal Bench of NGT, held the constitution of the Special Bench as illegal and directed that the cases relating to the Western Zone only be heard by the Western Zonal Bench.
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