New Delhi: The Delhi High Court has directed the Centre to complete within six weeks the process of appointment of Chairman and a Member for the Principal Bench of the Customs, Central Excise and Service Tax Settlement Commission.
It further said that the process of appointment of Vice-Chairman and one member for the additional bench of the Commission at Mumbai be completed within six weeks.
The high court also directed the central government to examine the aspect of appointment of Vice-Chairman and other members for the benches of the Settlement Commission at Chennai and Kolkata.
"We firstly direct that the process of appointment of Chairman and one Member for the Principal Bench at Delhi and appointment of Vice-Chairman and one Member for the Additional Bench at Mumbai be completed within six weeks. We further direct the respondents to examine the aspect of appointment of Vice-Chairman and other Members for the Benches at Chennai and Kolkata," a bench of Acting Chief Justice Vipin Sanghi and Justice Navin Chawla said.
The bench further said that it hopes and expects the government to act in time so that, at the end of one year, "We are not faced with the same situation again, when the tenure of the new appointees expires in terms of the decision communicated vide letter dated April 29, 2022 taken note of hereinabove".
It asked the authorities to file a further status report on the aspect before the next date of hearing, that is, July 20.
The court was hearing a petition by Yashpal Singh alleging that the Centre has failed to appoint members as required by law in the Settlement Commissions established under Central Excise Act, which is giving rise to pendency of applications.
The plea said the commission has its Principal Bench at New Delhi and three additional benches at Chennai, Kolkata and Mumbai. The Settlement Commission consists of one Chairman and two members in the Principal Bench in New Delhi and one Vice Chairman and two members in each of the three additional benches.
The petition, through advocates Saurabh Kansal, Pallavi Sharma Kansal and Ashu Chaudhary, said the petitioner came to know that there was no quorum or in fact no member in any of the benches of the settlement commission for the last few months.
Earlier, while issuing notice to the government on the petition, the court had noted that all these benches were lacking quorum from December 8, 2019 and thereafter.
On May 2, the counsel for the petitioner placed in the court a copy of April 29 communication issued by the Superintendent, Ministry of Finance, Department of Revenue, Customs, Central Excise and Service Tax Settlement Commission stating that the competent authority has decided to appoint the Chairman and one member in the Principal Bench at Delhi and the Vice-Chairman and one member in the Additional Bench at Mumbai, for a period of one year.
The counsel informed that it has been proposed to review this arrangement after a period of one year and the process to appoint the members for this post was being initiated.
The Centre's counsel also placed an April 25 communication stating that there are two functional benches in the Customs, Central Excise and Service Tax Settlement Commission -- the Principal Bench at New Delhi and an Additional Bench at Mumbai -- and that the Department was in the process of filling up the posts of Chairman and one member in Principal Bench at Delhi and the post of Vice-Chairman and one member in the Additional Bench at Mumbai of the Commission.
The court, however, said that in both the communications, there was no whisper about the benches in Kolkata and Chennai.
The high court had earlier sought response of the ministries of Finance and Law and Justice while observing that the situation at the commission was "rather alarming" and had asked the Centre to take steps at the earliest to make appointments to the four benches of the Settlement Commission.
The petition has said, "There is only Chairman at Delhi for a long period, giving rise to a situation wherein applications of the applicants may abate for no fault on part of such applicants," and added that as per an RTI reply, some of the benches have no members since 2019.
The plea sought direction to the government to expeditiously fill the vacancies in the Settlement Commission and ensure that no applicant suffers for want of a member in the commission.
The plea said the basic objective of setting up of the Settlement Commission is to expedite payments of customs and excise duties involved in disputes by avoiding costly and time-consuming litigation process and to give an opportunity to taxpayers to come clean who may have evaded payments of duty.