The Supreme Court’s tax bench, dedicated to hearing tax-related issues, is back.
The bench comprising justices A.K. Sikri and Rohinton F. Nariman was introduced during the tenure of chief justice H.L. Dattu last year to ensure quick disposal of tax cases.
After taking a small hiatus of two months after chief justice T.S. Thakur took over in December last year, the bench has been sitting on Mondays and Fridays at 2pm since 4 March.
“I guess it’s back by popular demand! I don’t know the exact reasons of course but given how happy the Bar was with the functioning of the Tax Bench, I suppose that may have been a factor in its restoration,” said Alok Prasanna Kumar, senior resident fellow at Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy.
In an analysis for Mint , Kumar wrote that this bench delivered 197 judgments in 2015, roughly the same number as was done in the three years before 2015 (206 judgments). A total of 518 connected cases were disposed of through these judgments and various orders.
The tax bench was largely considered to be successful at the time, and it was hoped that even after Dattu’s retirement, the bench would continue.
Lawyer Balbir Singh reportedly said, “I hope the new Chief (Justice of India) will also come up with some plan like this and can form a separate bench to focus just on direct tax this time.”
The return of the bench can also be part of CJI Thakur’s drive to reduce pendency in the top court. It was one of the promises he made as he began his tenure. In order to bring down the number of pending cases, in January, Thakur set up constitution benches and three-judge benches to hear cases every Monday and Friday.
Sunil Jain, tax partner at law firm J. Sagar Associates, welcomed the move. “Of course, a dedicated bench is very good. It will look at disposing cases faster, especially since there are a large number of pending cases,” he said.
However, Jain noted that the apex court as such has to be credited with handling varied laws and unraveling complex legal issues.
“But even before this bench (was formed), you cannot fault a very large number of judgments of the Supreme Court,” Jain said, adding, “Personally, I am enamoured by their skill. All Supreme Court judges are seasoned jurists who end up looking at various kinds of laws every day. They have a very mature reading of the law and disentangle for us very diverse laws.”
Why the tax bench is back is anybody’s guess, but it certainly speaks of the competence of the judges who have been assigned the task.
“Universal opinion was that we had two very good judges who delivered very clear judgements on the law,” Kumar said.
Lawyer Harish Salve also agreed. In the February report referred above, he said, “Tax is a specialist field and terse judgments to the point are always better precedents. General comments in long judgements create problems. This bench was superb in their grasp and in their judgements.”
The bench decided issues regarding whether tax liability would pass on to the legal heirs of an assessee who died (no for indirect taxes, yes for direct taxes), on excise valuation and anti-dumping duties.