The judge and his stenographer sat on the rear seat of a white Ambassador car. Lawyers boarded the car and positioned themselves on the front seat, near the driver’s, and turned back to argue their case.
Perplexed? Yes. This is how the Employees Provident Fund Appellate Tribunal (EPFAT), India’s apex court dealing with PF disputes from all over the country has been operating for almost a year.
The judge, who is handling nearly 5,600 cases, was forced to hold court in his official vehicle ever since a fire gutted the courtroom and offices situated on the 9th floor of Mayur Bhawan in Connaught Place on October 6, 2007. The tribunal had not been allotted an alternative site by the Centre despite repeated request.
Not any more.
Eight months after the Hindustan Times first reported the tribunal’s plight, the Ministry of Labour recently submitted before the Delhi High Court that the EPFA court has been allotted a plush office on the fourth floor in SCOPE
Tower at the Lakshmi Nagar District Centre in east Delhi.
Soon after the report appeared in HT, Rajiv Shuka, the President of EPFAT Bar association filed a Public Interest Litigation (with a clipping of the HT news report attached to it) in the High Court, seeking a direction to the Labour
Ministry to provide them a permanent office with sufficient staff.
“This is simply amazing. What is this? How can a tribunal function from a car? This is indeed shocking. Is there no one listening?” a Bench of justices TS Thakur and Sidharth Mridul observed on April 29 after going through the petition and the HT photo.
The judges directed the Centre to immediately take steps to provide an alternative land to the tribunal and file a status report in the court.
Shukla also complained about the severe staff crunch faced by the tribunal.
Was working from his official car a form of protest by the presiding officer? Lawyers do not think so. They are impressed with his sincerity.
Lawyer P Vinay Kumar told HT, “What else could he do if he doesn’t have an office? Lawyers from across the country are coming. The pendency ranges between 4,500-6,000 cases. He still managed to hear urgent matters. Denial of building was height of government apathy. Other such tribunals are working from posh five star hotels like Ashoka and Samrat.”
With the Centre allotting an alternative site for the tribunal, a Bench of Chief Justice AP Shah and Justice S Muralidhar disposed off the case and also asked the Centre to “consider the additional requirement of the staff at the Tribunal and take a decision in that regard on priority basis within a period of three months”.