MADURAI: The absence of a presiding officer at the Debts Recovery Tribunal (DRT) in Madurai has been distressing both the litigants and banks for the past few months. The Madurai DRT has jurisdiction over 10 districts in the State. When the presiding officer post in Madurai DRT fell vacant on September 20, 2021, the presiding officer of the DRT Coimbatore was given additional charge over Madurai DRT till December 31, 2021, as an interim measure. However, the already-overburdened Coimbatore DRT heard cases of Madurai jurisdiction only once a week and no extension was ordered after December.
Highlighting these issues, a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) was filed by the DRT-Madurai Bar Association to fill up the post of the presiding officer and several other vacant posts. In response to this, the Union government informed the court that a presiding officer would be appointed soon and the additional charge granted to the Coimbatore DRT was also extended till March 31.
But much to the shock of the litigants and advocates, the presiding officer newly appointed for Madurai DRT has not yet taken charge and due to the expiry of the extension period in March, the litigants and banks were left with no other option except to approach the High Court Bench for debt recovery related cases, sources from the DRT-Bar Association said.
"This has not only increased the burden of the High Court but has reduced it to the status of a tribunal. Moreover, the High Court sits on the top of the hierarchy. Litigants approach it only after exhausting their chances before DRT and DRAT (Debts Recovery Appellate Tribunal). The present situation, therefore, strips the litigants off the opportunity of appellate remedy," advocate N Dilip Kumar told TNIE.
The High Court has been on summer vacation since May 1 and special benches have been constituted to hear urgent cases for at least two days every week, throughout the month. TNIE has found the High Court has already heard 80 SARFAESI (Securitisation and Reconstruction of Financial Assets and Enforcement of Securities Interest) cases during the vacation. On May 18, 43 out of the 141 cases listed before the division bench were SARFAESI cases.
Another problem highlighted by Dilip is the huge pendency of cases before the Madurai DRT. "Granting additional charge of Madurai was only a stop-gap arrangement and the presiding officer of Coimbatore DRT heard the cases from Coimbatore instead of coming down to Madurai. Even then, only fresh cases were taken up while the old cases were merely adjourned. One of my cases was adjourned to 2023, though the SARFAESI Act prescribes a time limit of two to four months for disposing of cases filed under the Act," he lamented. Cases filed as early as 2017 are still pending, he further said, adding that the entire issue has led to the clogging of public funds.
Advocate B Prasanna Vinodh said approaching the High Court has been beneficial with regard to fresh cases but litigants with old cases bear the brunt. "After spending nearly `1 lakh as court fee in the tribunal, litigants have to spend more and engage advocates for filing another case for the same issue before the HC. Also, in pending cases, banks take advantage of the present situation and conduct auctions by pre-deciding bidders. Luckily, we were able to prove this in one of my cases but the same is not possible all the time. It is also difficult to project complete case details before the High Court, as could be done before the tribunal. After all, the Supreme Court has time and again held that the DRT is the appropriate forum for such cases and that the High Court can be approached only in extraordinary circumstances," Vinodh said.
An advocate from DRT-Madurai Bar Association, requesting anonymity, also added that the absence of a presiding officer has made it difficult to obtain back original property documents after the settlement of cases. "Litigants need the original documents to proceed forward, especially for selling properties. Even many administrative files in the tribunal are piling up awaiting the presiding officer's signature," he said. Sources from the association said the PIL filed by the association seeking steps to fill the post is still pending, and they will highlight these issues before the High Court in June.