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WITH the backlog in courts mounting and the government emerging as the main litigator, the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) has asked ministries and departments to curb their tendency to rush to court each time a conflict arises with another ministry. This, sources said, is the first step towards implementing the government’s plan to cut down litigation in which it is a party.
While there is no concrete data on the extent of government litigation, legal experts said the government is a party in over 50 per cent cases in the higher judiciary. While successive governments at the Centre have underlined the need to cut down on litigation involving the government, officials feel the latest effort could translate into a game-changer.
Following a meeting chaired by Principal Secretary to Prime Minister, Union Law Secretary P K Malhotra has written to Secretaries of all ministries to “desist” from initiating inter-ministerial/ inter-departmental litigation in courts. Malhotra has also asked the Secretaries to issue necessary instructions to all PSUs and government authorities under their administrative control to try to resolve disputes with other governmental wings amicably. In the event of such disputes not being resolved amicably, the first endeavour should be to resolve them through empowered agencies or arbitration.
”In case it is not possible to resolve the dispute amicably by mutual consultation or through the good offices of empowered agencies of the government or through arbitration, the same should be referred first to the Cabinet Secretariat, and then, if necessary, to the PMO,” says the letter.
The government already has a Permanent Machinery of Arbitration, which functions in the Department of Public Enterprises and settles disputes between PSUs. Some other departments also have in-house mechanisms, but these have proved ineffective in preventing more litigation.
During the UPA-II regime, the Committee on Disputes, which used to function in the Cabinet Secretariat, was disbanded.
In 1984, the Law Commission of India had proposed that each ministry should have a “litigation ombudsman”, whose job would be to ensure that prospective litigants against the government receive a fair hearing before they actually file a case in court.
This was followed by another report in 1988, in which the Law Commission recommended that arbitrators should be appointed in government departments to settle disputes between PSUs/ departments and others. However, no concrete action was ever taken on these reports.