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Report No. 122

11. What is the present position 30 years after the abolition of the Labour Appellate Tribunal? If delay in resolution of disputes by continuing it before the appellate forum was widely resented so as to strive for abolition of the appellate forum, then the situation at present is, to say the least, atrocious. In the Supreme Court of India, 953 matters under the labour laws are pending as on 31-12-1985 and they ranged from 1971 to 1985.

The dispute which has come before the Supreme Court in 1971 and which is pending here for 15 years must have started before the Labour Court at least five years before, if it has not come via the High Court and if it has come via the High Court, 10 years before 1971. Calculating either way, the 1971 disputes pending in the Supreme Court of India must now be pending for over 25 years. Similarly, the labour matters pending in 18 High Courts, at the end of the years 1982 were 5766.

The figures available for seven High Courts upto and inclusive of December 31, 1985 would show pendency at 10,233. Pendency has doubled within three years. It is difficult to workout an acceptable detailed analysis and the duration of their pendency. In any event, the duration must be not less than five years excluding the time taken before the adjudication forum.

Reverting to the grievance that the Labour Appellate Tribunal took about two years for deciding the appeals coming before it, which was considered atrocious as to call for its abolition what would one say about the present situation where the matters are pending with the High Court and the Supreme Court for over decades. Those who were votaries of abolition had also reposed faith in the Supreme Court to bring about expeditious disposal and national conformity. What a shock for them?

12. Two ugly features of the system have surfaced. There has been a general tendency to avoid the High Court and to rush to the Supreme Court because Labour Court/ Industrial Court is a tribunal whose orders and awards are judicially reviewable by the Supreme Court of India under Article 136.

But even if the matter is taken to High Court, the delay is inordinate. Industrial disputes affecting individuals, such as dismissal, termination of service, punishment for misconduct, individual monetary benefits, are dragged on to the High Court and the Supreme Court not with a view to get effective justice, but to force upon a weak adversary namely the workman an unjust compromise keeping in view that the staying power of the workman is limited. Two cases in this connection may be illustrated.1

In Goyal's case the workman was suspended from the service of Bank of Baroda in July 1965. He sought a reference under section 10 of the I.D. Act which was given. The tribunal held the reference invalid on a flimsy ground. The S.C. in 1978 held the reference valid and remanded for award on merits. This award was challenged and the matter was brought to Supreme Court. Reinstatement was granted on 18-7-1979 and stayed. Finally he went back in service in 1983 i.e., eighteen years after his suspension.

In the second case of Shambunath Mukherjee facts are more gruesome. His name was struck off the rolls on January 19, 1966. Till he died on May 30, 1984 he was chasing a mirage of justice through the labyrinth of High Court and Supreme Court.

1. Shambhunath Goyal v. Bank of Baroda, 1978 2 SCC 353. Delhi Cloth and General Mills Ltd. v. Shambu Nath Mukherjee, 1984 Supp SCC 534.

13. The second feature of an appellate forum with an all-India jurisdiction was that by its awards, it can bring about a measure of uniformity in the norms of industrial relations and formulate principles for guidance of the Labour Courts and Industrial Tribunals. On the face of it, the High Court cannot bring about this uniformity because its jurisdiction is confined to the State in which it operates. While there are a number of big industrial undertakings which have Inter-State operations, there are also monopolies like the Life Insurance Corporation, General Insurance Corporation, which have all-India operation's.

Similarly, there are such cartels as Bharat Petroleum, Hindustan Petroleum, etc. which fall within the Category of industrial employers and are subject to conflicting awards by Labour Courts/Industrial Courts operating in Various parts of the country and subject to the jurisdiction of local State Governments. This is not conducive to the healthy growth of norms of industrial relations. Further, these industrial undertakings with Inter-state operations find themselves subject to varying awards introducing a certain amount of differential treatment amongst its employees.

14. Can the Supreme Court fill the bill of providing a sort of uniform norms of industrial adjudication applicable all over the country, that was the expectation of votaries of abolition of Labour Appellate Tribunal. Let it be made clear that the Supreme Court was never conceived as a Court of Appeal. It was a body with a very wide plenitude of jurisdiction to correct some glaring of errors involving miscarriage of justice, or constitutional provisions.

It cannot function as a Court of Appeal in the sense in which a Court of Appeal functions. It is, therefore, inevitable that a body having an all-India jurisdiction operating at a level below the Supreme Court which can bring about uniformity in industrial relation norms, and which can provide a sort of uniformity in dealing with disputes in industrial undertakings having Inter-State operations.

15. The National Labour Commission, after having view,d at close quarters the vacuum created by the abolition of the Labour Appellate Tribunal, recommended setting up of an Industrial Relations Commission, both at National level and State level. It recommended the continuance of Labour Courts and recommended an appeal over its decision to the High Court.1 With respect, a decision by the High Court over the award or the decision of the Labour Court, would hardly be helpful in bringing about uniformity at national level. The High Courts differ and again the Supreme Court is made to intervene to resolve the conflict and in this process, the delay is inevitable.

1. Report of the National Labour Commission on Labour, Chapter 23, paras. 23.63 to 23.66, pp. 312-315

16. Even before the National Labour Commission dealt with this aspect, the Law Commission of India examined this aspect. The Law Commission, having taken note of the pending appeals in labour matters on the file of the Supreme Court observed:-

"These matters have, in a sense, been forced upon the Court, inasmuch as the Court could not refuse to entertain appeals against decisions which appeared to be arbitrary and capricious and made in disregard of well accepted principles of law or natural justice. It will be noticed that a large number of applications for special leave in these matters made to the Supreme Court synchronise with the abolition of the Labour Appellate Tribunal.

The new labour legislation constitutes tribunals against the decisions of which no appeal lies. Not unnaturally, therefore, in most cases of unjust or arbitrary decisions, there are applications for special leave to appeal to the Supreme Court. The aggrieved party approaches the Supreme Court because the jurisdiction of the High Court under Article 226 is too narrow to afford relief in these matters. Under Article 226, the High Court can only quash an order made by these tribunals, but cannot make its own decision and substitute it for that of the tribunal.

The High Court, would, generally speaking, quash these orders only in cases of excess of jurisdiction or an error of law apparent on the face of the record or a contravention of the principles of natural justice or the like. It is, therefore, imperative that the legislature should intervenee and provide for an adequate right of appeal in these matters."

17. The High Courts and the Supreme Court are under a great pressure of torrential inflow of work. When the Court tries to control one branch of litigation, the other goes out of control. The High Court is unable to provide a Labour Bench round the year. So also, the Supreme Court. The unedifying outcome is that the longest delay occurs at the Supreme Court level, comparatively less at the High Court level and by and large, there is expeditious disposal before the Labour Court Industrial Tribunal.

This reverse phenomenon clearly indicates that the abolition of the Labour Appellate Tribunal was short-sighted measure. If there was any legitimacy in the grievance about the personnel manning the tribunal, the sensible solution was to deal with the manpower problem but not put an end to the body itself.

18. The Law Commission is of the opinion that the time has come to review the situation in all its aspects. The High Court and the Supreme Court would go on entertaining matters because the Labour Court/Industrial Tribunal may commit errors. Though the jurisdiction of High Court is narrow, the matters are dealt with as if these courts are hearing appeals . Cases are not unknown where the awards are interfered with under the pretext that the findings are perverse and the delay is horrendous.

To illustrate, some matters questioning the correctness of Palekar Award in the matter of wage structure between the journalists and the newspaper employers are still pending in the Supreme Court even though Bachawat Panel has already been set up and started functioning about a year back. One would stand aghast at the idea that till Bachawat Panel finalises its recommendation, those affected by the Palekar Award are not certain as to what would be the outcome of the deliberations of the Supreme Court of India. A remedial measure has become inevitable.

19. The Law Commission, in its search for expeditious disposal and liquidation of backlog of cases, has a tentative plan to recommend an Industrial Relations Commission having an appellate jurisdiction over the awards of the Labour Court/Industrial Tribunals. This Commission can sit in benches. It will have an all-India jurisdiction.

Efforts will be made to provide manpower imbued with notions of social justice, industrial relations, norms, peace and harmony in industry, avoidance of class conflict, growth of industrial prosperity, etc. The Law Commission, therefore, requests you to please answer the questions set out in the annexure to this introductory part and submit the same on or before 15th March, 1987, to the Law Commission of India.

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