On 25th January 2016, we celebrate the Platinum Jubilee of an institution, the founding day of which precedes the founding day of the Indian Republic by 9 years and 1 day. Like the Indian Republic the lifetime of the Tribunal will be forever or at least till income-tax continues to be levied, which as per the present reckoning will, unfortunately, be forever!

I am sure this publication will be full of (deserved) praise for the Tribunal. However, a birthday is not only an occasion for celebration and congratulations but for stock-taking and reflection. It is axiomatic that no institution is perfect because institutions are manned by human beings, even though they render justice which is an attribute of God.

One sincerely hopes that the Central Government will in future fill up vacancies in the membership of the Tribunal promptly. Out of a sanctioned strength of 126 members, even after taking into account the recent appointment of about 30 members, the Tribunal is functioning at three-fourths of its sanctioned strength. It is known in advance as to when a vacancy will occur and appointments can well be made in good time to fill such vacancies. As per newspaper reports the Supreme Court also has had occasion to comment on the lethargy displayed by the Central Government. We should be able to tell the world not only that “we make” in India but also that we make appointments to posts on time in India! Delay in appointments means that Benches are made to function in double shifts and even in triple shifts! At some centres there is an imbalance between the number of accountant and judicial members with the result that the same member has to sit on two or three Benches on a daily basis! Such burden cast on the members achieves little, as very often a large number of the excessive matters fixed for hearing on a day are adjourned for want of time and this results in wastage of time for the litigants and their representatives. The cynic may of course say that with the ever increasing limit of tax at stake, only beyond which the Department can file an appeal one may not require the full strength of 126 members for disposal of the appeals!

On a few occasions there have been somewhat perturbing reports of allegations of impropriety by a Tribunal member. It is desirable that a Committee should be set-up which would expeditiously look into reports, which appear to have a prima facie basis, and submit its findings to the President. The committee could consist of the Senior Vice-President and another member functioning at the headquarters of the Tribunal and one member functioning at the place where the member against whom an allegation is made is based. If it is found that the conduct of a member has not been what it should have been, appropriate action should be taken at an early date. Transferring the member to another location is not a solution. If the existing rules do not contain adequate provisions conferring appropriate powers in this behalf an amendment thereof may have to be considered. If necessary, the President may be vested with wider powers in this behalf.

An event worth mentioning, which occurred after the diamond jubilee celebrations, was the formulation by the Tribunal in 2008 of a Code of Ethics for its members. In 2000 several professional associations had submitted to the President a very comprehensive draft in this behalf.

Presently, to obtain a stay in respect of a demand raised pursuant to an assessment order, an assessee has to apply to the Assessing Officer and thereafter, if necessary, to the Commissioner. In practice this procedure has not been effective as the pressure to collect taxes to meet targets is ever present. This results in writ petitions having to be filed in the High Court to obtain relief. It is for consideration whether on the rejection of an application for stay of recovery of tax, whilst an appeal is pending before the first Appellate Authority, the Tribunal should be empowered to entertain an application for stay of recovery of taxes.

After the celebration of the diamond jubilee in 2001, two important organizational changes have taken place. The first is the insertion in the Income-tax Act of section 144C in 2009 regarding the constitution of the Dispute Resolution Panel. Generally, the Panel affirms the draft assessment orders except for correcting some very obvious errors. Assessees still approach it primarily because it enables early access to the Tribunal as, unlike in the case of an appeal to the Commissioner, a time limit if provided for disposal of matters by the Panel. This is indeed a tribute to the confidence reposed in the Tribunal as the institution which will deliver even-handed justice.

The other change is the insertion in 2013 of clause (a) in section 252(3) of the Income-tax Act empowering the Central Government to appoint a sitting or retired judge of a High Court as the President. Prior thereto the senior vice-president was normally appointed as President. This ensured that the appointee had prior experience of the Tribunal’s working and knowledge about the members who he had to regulate. Whether this system, which had worked satisfactorily, should be continued is a matter for careful consideration after taking into account the views of all concerned and the experience of the last nine months, when the first appointment as per section 252(3)(a) was made.

The biblical life span of an individual is three score and ten years. At 75 the Tribunal is not old but an Institution with unmatched experience of 75 years. I am sure the celebration in Delhi of the Platinum Jubilee of an Institution, the headquarters of which and of its President are in Mumbai, will be a glittering success. One looks forward to the celebration of the centenary. I do not know whether there is a generally accepted occasion like a silver, golden, diamond or platinum jubilee between the platinum jubilee and the centenary!

[Source : Article printed in ITAT Platinum Jubilee Celebration souvenir held on 24th & 25th January, 2016 at New Delhi]

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