In Kerala, the High Court is situated at Ernakulam, the commercial capital of the State, rather than its administrative Capital – Thiruvananthapuram. There is not even a High Court Bench at the State Capital of Thiruvananthapuram. This unique setup is a continuation of the treaty of accession signed between the princely states ofKochiand Travancore that were later conjoined to form the State ofKerala. Though the special arrangement has its own legal and practical reasons, it has been always a bone of contention between the Lawyer Communities of these two cities – Ernakulam and Thiruvananthapuram. For the past several decades, the Bar Associations of Thiruvananthapuram have been regularly conducting dharanas, rallies and agitations, which at times have blown out violent, for the establishment of a High Court Bench at the State Capital of Thiruvananthapuram. However, the Kerala High Court and the Supreme Court have been consistently snubbing their request citing judicial integrity and drawbacks of bifurcation of the Court. The fact remains that Thiruvananthapuram is only 4 hours drive from Ernakulam, which is centrally located, and the arrangement is functioning perfectly, without any cause for new amends.
The idea of establishing a State Administrative Tribunal at Thiruvananthapuram emerged as a political compromise in 2010, when the Kerala High Court reiterated its earlier stand against establishing any High Court bench at Thiruvananthapuram. The Law Minister of Kerala – Shri. P Vijayakumar, who hailed and was elected from Thiruvananthapuram North constituency, supported and advocated the cause. It resulted in sudden establishment of the Kerala State Administrative Tribunal (hereafter SAT) in August 2010, with two permanent bench at Thiruvananthapuram (Principle Bench), and one Bench, that too without filing facility, at Ernakulam. The Tribunal
was established under Administrative Tribunals Act, 1985, to handle service cases of State Government Employees, in order to relieve the High Court from its heavy work load.
Several writ petitions were filed challenging the Constitutional validity of establishing the SAT, appointing the Chairman, and other Orders establishing principle bench at Thiruvananthapuram, rather than Ernakulam. Writ Petitions were filed by individual lawyers, government employee, voluntary organizations and by the Kerala High Court Advocates Association (hereafter KHAAC). While all the petitioners except KHAAC strongly opposed the constitution of SAT itself as illegal, the latter treated SAT as fait accompli and therefore prayed only for establishment of principle bench at Ernakulam, or at least to grant filing facility in the bench proposed there.
Initially, the writ petitions were considered by the bench consisting of the Chief Justice J. Chelameshwar himself. However, in view conflict in interest, since he headed the appointing committee which appointed members of SAT during the pendency of litigation, the matter was assigned to another division bench. After extensive arguments, the Division Bench consisting of Justice C.N Ramachandran Nair and Justice B.P Ray [Sreekantan T & others v. State of Kerala, 2011 (2) KHC 342 (DB)] came down heavily against the establishment of SAT.
The court held that “even though we do not think it is within our jurisdiction to consider the propriety of a policy decision taken by the State Government to set up a separate Tribunal for itself, we are constrained to observe that reasons for establishment of the Tribunal as explained in the report of the Expert Committee are neither relevant nor factually correct. In the first place, the assumption of the committee and State Government that the Tribunal will relieve the High Court of its work is rather absurd because after Chandrakumar’s Case [ AIR 1997 SC 1125] every order of the Tribunal can be challenged before this Court. From our experience of handling cases which arise from the orders of the Central Administrative Tribunal, Cochin Bench, we notice that invariably every order of the CAT including their interim orders are challenged in the High Court. The declaration of subordination of the Administrative Tribunals to the High Courts under Article 227 of the Constitution by the Supreme Court in Chandrakumar’s Case has rendered the Tribunals redundant and incapable of achieving its objective i.e to relieve the pressure of work in High Court”
Another ground on which the State Government defended its decision to establish SAT was that it can reduce the travelling time and expenditure to the High Court situated at Ernakulam. The court negated the above argument by stating that “we are surprised to note the massive expenditure claimed to be spent by the Government for travelling to Ernakulam. In these days of advanced communication and connectivity only the State Government can allow people travel up and down carrying files which in our view is avoidable. Further we do not know how Government can save this expenditure by establishing the Service Tribunal because in the second round of litigation in the High Court, the same exercise will have to be repeated.”
Although the Kerala High Court severely criticized the logic and reasons behind the establishment of SAT, it however, refrained from declaring it as unconstitutional, since it was a policy decision of the State Government. The decision to have the principle bench at Thiruvananthapuram was also held justified. However, the grievance of KHAAC was addressed and the facility to file new cases and petitions were granted to the SAT Bench established at Ernakulam.
Another related issue with respect to SAT which plagued the State Government was the decision to appoint Retd. Justice K Balakrishanan Nair as its Chairman, while he was still serving as a Judge of High Court of Kerala. In fact, Shri. K Balakrishanan Nair was appointed as Chairman of SAT even before the establishment of SAT itself. Although strong arguments were raised against such an irregular appointment and power brokering by the Samata Law Society, the Kerala High Court did not appreciate it by reasoning that Retd. Justice K Balakrishanan Nair took charge as chairman only after the notification and establishment of the SAT. Shri. K Balakrishanan Nair also created other unnecessary controversies by giving unsolicited recommendation to State Government that strength of judges of High Court at Ernakulam should be reduced in the light of formation of SAT at Thiruvananthapuram. This created uproar in Ernakulam and KHAAC passed resolutions against it.
It is a matter of contempt that rivalry between legal communities of Ernakulam and Thiruvananthapuram is behind the reverse development of judiciary in the State. As identified by the Kerala High Court, establishment of SAT is absolutely unnecessary and cumbersome for the litigants. It will create two tier litigation, as against the present litigation, which starts and ends in the High Court. It is to be noted that after the decision of Supreme Court in Chandrakumar’s Case many states like Tamil Nadu, Chattisgarh, Himachal Pradesh, Madya Pradesh etc have recently abolished the State Administrative Tribunals, finding it inefficient and redundant. It is at this juncture, the Kerala Government has decided to establish SAT. The SAT may bring some peace to the legal community of Thiruvananthapuram, but the litigants stand to lose. Only solance is that litigants in this case are babus and bureaucrats, who can afford to lose