Huzaima Bukhari & Dr. Ikramul Haq
In the British India, Income-tax Appellate Tribunal was established on January 25, 1941. After independence, this institution was retained by India and Pakistan as such, except that we changed the nomenclature to Appellate Tribunal Inland Revenue (ATIR) on October 28, 2009 through a Presidential Ordinance in the wake of amalgamation of income tax and sales tax into one unified group. The Tribunal, already completed 78 years of its existence, is considered as mother of all Tribunals. In Pakistan it has permanent seats at Lahore, Islamabad, Peshawar and Karachi. In India, it has 27 stations and 63 benches. Since Customs and Inland Revenue Tribunals deal with federal taxes, these can be merged and upgraded as National Tax Tribunal, working directly under the supervision of Supreme Court. This will relieve High Courts of undue workload of tax cases. Two-tier tax appellate system—as is the case with Federal Service Tribunal—will ensure speedy disposal of cases involving state revenues.
There is not only a dire need to convert existing tax tribunals into National Tax Tribunal, but also transform them into e-Tribunals using modern technology. Our Supreme Court has recently taken an initiative towards this goal. In India, it was taken way back in 2010 and the author very aptly observed: “what was in the realm of fantasy till yesterday is now in the realm of reality thanks to the forward-looking approach adopted by the Tribunal. The Tribunal, grappling with the problems of paucity of Members and the increasing case load, is contemplating setting up E-Courts/E-Benches to solve the problem. This will help clear the pendency of cases and bring justice to the assessee’s doorstep. If the concept is successful, it can be extended to the High Courts and the Supreme Court”. We have yet not taken any such initiative at the level of various tribunals.
G.E. Veerabhadrappa, President of Indian Income Tax Appellate Tribunal (ITAT), with the help of Vice-presidents and Members, took concrete measures to establish e-Tribunal for better administration of justice. On March 2, 2012, an interactive meeting was held for this purpose between the President of Indian ITAT, representatives of tax bar and departmental representatives. All participants were of the considered view that the concept of e-Tribunal would immensely benefit the taxpayers, tax administration and tax consultants.
The establishment of e-Courts have revolutionised the process of dispensation of justice in many countries. Lahore High Court started the process as early as in April, 1991 when a Computer Cell was inaugurated—this was the first ever use of computer technology in any judicial department in Pakistan. Since then progress has been made, though slowly, to use IT tools for swift disposal of cases and curtailing the backlog by all high courts in the country. However, the technology is restricted to displaying cause lists on websites and reporting of decisions etc—it can accelerate case disposals through e-Courts and e-Benches.
The Indian Supreme Court started e-Courts project in 2005 aimed at computerizing all courts including taluk (local) courts. In 2010, all the District Courts were computerized for posting case lists of courts online. Our courts have also done a good work but the real need is that of establishing e-Courts and e-Benches along with facility to record statements of witnesses through video conference, filing papers online, and conducting hearings using IT technology.
A beginning can be made from tax appellate apparatus. The establishment of e-Benches can reduce the pendency of tax appeals and save substantial amount of taxpayers’ money needed for setting up physical offices at different places. The establishment of e-Benches can definitely help in delivering justice at the litigants’ door step. If a bench is not functioning in a particular place, say in Multan, in case of an emergency for stay of recovery, the taxpayer is compelled to file an application in Lahore and bear the cost of travelling etc. For many in remote areas, situated far away from the nearest available Tribunal bench, it’s both costly and time consuming. The working of e-Bench would help taxpayers, tax consultants and tax administration. For example: appeals at main cities of all provinces can be heard at e-Bench of Tribunal at respective capitals. The consultants and departmental representatives at these places will visit the nearest tax office and present their case. The members sitting at Karachi, Lahore, Peshawar, Quetta and Islamabad through video conferencing will hear the case and pronounce their judgment. Such e-Benches can be extended to all cities of Pakistan where tax offices exist but Tribunal has no establishment.
Setting up e-Benches of Tax Tribunal will not require substantial spending as existing facilities in Customs Houses, Large Taxpayers Units (LTUs) and Regional Tax Offices (RTOs) can be utilised. This would enable the consultants to represent the matter from their own city. This, apart from facilitating the taxpayers and tax consultants, will reduce the pendency of cases, save substantial capital and recurring expenditure of the government which can be used for more productive purposes. Above all, there will be complete transparency in justice delivery system. Recording of the proceedings would eliminate any chance of malpractice or allegation of miscarriage of justice.
In many countries, there is an even more exciting initiative called e-Mobile Court that is a specially designed vehicle having facility of e-Library, with all modern technology and as soon as the hearing is over, judgment is delivered to both the parties. This brings transparency and eliminates delay in the justice delivery system. If the concept of e-Mobile Court is implemented, justice will be at the doorstep of every citizen in Pakistan. Through this mechanism, litigants could get justice within six months of filing of petition or suit in the respective Tribunal/Court. In Pakistan, it can bring a revolution in the justice delivery system, provided the government with the approval of Supreme Court makes it a priority item on the agenda of judicial reforms and provide required funds.
There is an urgent need to establish e-Tribunals, e-Courts, e-Benches and e-Mobile Courts. It is time that all stakeholders join hands for reforming our existing outdated and outmoded judicial system. The pilot projects in phases taking various tribunals, federal and provincials, as models can go a long way to achieve this target.
The writers, lawyers and partners in HUZAIMA, IKRAM & IJAZ, are Adjunct Faculty at Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS).