In an ‘unprecedented’ move, the NDA government has sacked as many as 111 lawyers appointed during the UPA regime to represent the Centre in indirect tax cases before various judicial bodies. In a June 18 order, the Central Board of Excise and Customs (CBEC) cancelled their appointment as its standing counsel, overturning its own June 9 order, where these advocates were included in an appointments list of 251 senior/junior standing counsel for the Board. As per the original order, the tenure of these 251 standing counsel, including the 111, was to expire only on June 8, 2019. The Board, however, did not assign any reason for the removal of the 111 lawyers. The position of standing counsel of the CBEC is considered prestigious in legal circles as they are appointed by the President of India, after the CBEC — including its Chief Commissioner of Custom/Central Excise — examines their “expertise in handling indirect tax matters.” A detailed questionnaire sent to CBEC Chairman Najib Shah on July 20 elicited no response till the time of going to press. The June 18 order stated: “…it is informed that the order of the 111 counsel [as per list enclosed] who were on the panel as on 14.10.2014 is hereby rescinded.” In its June 9 order, the CBEC had said, the appointments were made with the concurrence of the Ministry of Law and Justice. Sources privy to the development told The Hindu that the 111 counsel were reappointed after the Chief Commissioner (of Customs) found their performance to be satisfactory — following which the Board had itself approved the renewal of their appointment. The 111 were among the standing counsel appointed on October 15, 2011 for a three year-term ending on October 14, 2014.
On June 24, the CBEC — in a letter to all the Chief Commissioners of Central Excise/Customs/Service Tax and the Director General of the Directorate of Revenue Intelligence (DG, DRI) — said it has been decided to constitute a fresh panel of senior/junior standing counsel against the existing 111 slots. Elaborating on the criteria for selection, it said the Committee (of Chief Commissioners) should “interview all the applicants.” This meant, the CBEC did not specifically bar the 111 from reapplying. The CBEC also said the Committee should note the communication skills and make an overall assessment of the applicant keeping performance as the key criterion. It added that the Committee should “discretely examine the applicant’s reputation/standing.” It asked the Commissioners and the DG, DRI to publish advertisements regarding the vacancies by July 10 and send their recommendations (after scrutiny and interview) to the Board by August 20. A legal expert told The Hindu on condition of anonymity that the June 18 order could be considered “arbitrary” and “against the principles of natural justice” as it did not assign any reason for the scrapping of the appointments. Pointing out that the 111 counsel were appointed during the UPA government’s tenure, one of them said on condition of anonymity, that their removal was due to “political” reasons. The development comes when the government is attempting to bring down indirect tax litigation given the huge backlog.
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