Supreme Court: NGT Must Allow Parties to Rebut Expert Committee Recommendations Before Issuing Directions
In a recent ruling, the Supreme Court underscored that the National Green Tribunal (NGT), functioning as an adjudicatory body, must adhere to the fundamental principles of natural justice. Additionally, the Court clarified that when the NGT intends to rely on an expert committee's report or any other relevant material, it is imperative to notify the concerned party in advance and ensure that the concerned party is provided with an opportunity for discussion and rebuttal.
During the proceedings, the Division Bench comprising Justices B V Nagarathna and Prashant Kumar Mishra acknowledged that the NGT holds the status of a judicial body and consequently performs adjudicatory functions.
“The very nature of an adjudicatory function would carry with it the requirement that principles of natural justice are complied with, particularly when there is an adversarial system of hearing of the cases before the Tribunal or for that matter before the Courts in India. The NGT though is a special adjudicatory body constituted by an Act of Parliament, nevertheless, the discharge of its function must be in accordance with law which would also include compliance with the principles of natural justice as envisaged in Section 19(1) of the Act,” the Court stated.
The Supreme Court reviewed a series of appeals challenging a collective order issued by the NGT’s Principal Bench in New Delhi. The order instructed specific thermal power plants to install air pollution control and monitoring devices, as well as ensure the prompt utilisation and disposal of fly ash as remedial measures.
The Supreme Court noted that the NGT had issued the aforementioned directions based on the recommendations provided in two reports submitted by an Expert Committee established by the NGT.
The Court observed that the NGT had accepted these recommendations and imposed remedial measures without affording the appellants, who were the subject of the order, an opportunity to voice their objections. The Bench determined that this action contravened Section 19(1) of the NGT Act, 2010, which states that the Tribunal is not bound by the Code of Civil Procedure, 1908 but must adhere to the principles of natural justice.
In this context, the Supreme Court invoked the "official notice" doctrine, which stipulates that parties involved in a legal matter must be duly notified of the materials relied upon by an authority and must be provided with an opportunity to present their explanations or rebuttals.
“The data on which an authority is acting must be apprised to the party against whom the data is to be used as such a party would then have an opportunity not only to refute it but also supplement, explain or give a different perspective to the facts upon which the authority relies,” the Court observed.
Citing the "official notice" doctrine, the Supreme Court observed that when it comes to cases presented before the NGT, if the NGT intends to rely on an expert committee's report or any other relevant material that has come to its attention, it must disclose such information to the concerned party in advance.
This disclosure ensures that the party has an opportunity for discussion and rebuttal. The Court emphasised that factual information obtained through a committee report, if to be considered by the NGT, must be shared with the parties involved, allowing them a reasonable opportunity to provide their observations or comments on the report to the Tribunal.
Furthermore, the Court specifically highlighted that the recommendations put forth by an expert committee are not legally binding on the NGT. Instead, they are intended to serve as guidance for the Tribunal in reaching its decision.
“Experts’ opinion is only by way of assistance in arriving at a final conclusion. But we find that in the instant case, the report of the expert Committee as well as the recommendations have been made the basis of the directions and such an approach is improper,” the Court said.
The Court took note of the fact that the appellants were not afforded the opportunity to present their objections to the recommendations made by the Expert Committee. It pointed out that the recommendations were uploaded on January 15, 2022, while the final order of the Tribunal was passed merely three days later on January 18, 2022.
Consequently, due to non-compliance with the principles of natural justice, the Supreme Court deemed the order of the NGT to be invalid. The Court set aside the impugned order and remanded the matter back to the Tribunal for reconsideration.