Should Statutory Tribunals Have Suo Moto Powers?

Statutory tribunals’ powers are limited by their statute. Can their powers be expanded based on the purpose with which they are formed?

On May 7th 2020 a gas leak in Visakhapatnam killed 11 and hospitalised hundreds of people. The very next day, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) initiated proceedings against LG Polymers, the owners of the chemical plant. Although no one had filed a petition, the NGT took up the case based on media reports about the leak. They passed an Order imposing a fine of Rs. 50 Crores on LG Polymers, even before a notice was sent to them. The fine was decided based on the value of the company and the Tribunal’s estimates of likely damages.

This Order was passed by a statutory tribunal exercising suo moto powers. A statutory tribunal is a quasi-judicial body, which unlike a court of law, is an administrative institution with the power to decide cases on defined subject matter. Statutory Tribunals’ powers are limited to their statutory jurisdiction and are not a constitutional court of general jurisdiction. The National Green Tribunal Act, 2010 (NGT Act), which establishes the NGT, does not expressly provide the tribunal with suo moto powers.

LG Polymers appealed the NGT’s order at the Supreme Court (SC). They stated that the NGT did not have the power to take suo moto cognisance under the NGT Act. The SC did not decide the issue, and directed LG Polymers to make the argument before the NGT first, since the matter was still being heard by the tribunal. On June 6th 2020, the NGT passed its final Order, recognising its own suo moto powers under the National Green Tribunal Act, 2010 (NGT Act).

The NGT justified its suo moto powers by focusing primarily on fulfilling its purpose under the NGT Act. This Order stated that the purpose of the NGT was to ‘provide relief and compensation to victims of environment damage, restitution of property, and restoration of (the) environment’. Further, under Section 19 of the Act, the NGT can regulate its own procedure to discharge its functions. The Order emphasised that both these provisions gave the NGT suo moto powers. It could ‘not keep its hands tied in the face of drastic environmental damage and serious violation of right to life, public health and damage to property’

In some cases, lawmakers have expressly granted a tribunal suo moto powers. In The Karnataka Land Reforms Act, 1961 the limited suo moto powers of the Land Tribunal is clearly mentioned in s 122A. Where no express powers are granted, other statutory tribunals have interpreted their statute to deny suo moto powers. The Debt Recovery Appellate Tribunal held that the Debt Recovery Tribunal does not enjoy suo moto powers. It noted that suo moto powers were not expressly mentioned in the Recovery of Debts Due to Banks and Financial Institutions Act, 1993 and could not be inferred from the general power to regulate its own procedures. 

These arguments are currently being heard in the Supreme Court, as it decides whether the NGT has suo moto powers. It will consider whether the core purpose of an ‘environmental court’ such as the NGT might be adequate grounds to confer suo moto powers.