Article 139 (1) of the Constitution reads thus:
“Notwithstanding anything in this chapter, the Supreme Court may, in its discretion, grant special leave to appeal from any judgment, decree, determination, sentence or order in any cause or matter passed or made by any Court or tribunal in the territory of India.
The expression ‘Court, denotes a tribunal constituted by the State as a part of the ordinary hierarchy of Courts which are invested with the State’s inherent judicial powers. A sovereign State discharge legislative, executive and judicial functions and can legitimately claim corresponding powers which are described as legislative, executive and judicial powers.
Under our Constitution, the judicial functions and powers of the State are primarily conferred on the ordinary courts which have been constituted under its relevant provisions. The Constitution recognise a hierarchy of courts and to their adjudication are normally entrusted all disputes between citizens and citizens as well as between the citizens and the State.
These Courts can be described as ordinary courts of civil judicature. They are governed by their prescribed rules of procedure and they deal with questions of facts and law raised before them by adopting process which is prescribed as judicial process.
The powers which these courts exercise are judicial powers, the functions they discharge are judicial functions and the decisions they reach and pronounce are judicial decisions.
In every State, there are administrative bodies or authorities which are required to deal with matters within their jurisdiction in an administrative manner and their decisions are described as Administrative decisions. In reaching their administrative decisions, the administrative bodies can and often do take into consideration questions of policy.
It is not unlikely that even in this process of reaching administrative decisions the administrative bodies or authorities are required to act fairly and objectively and would have, in many cases, to follow the principles of natural justice; but the authority to reach decisions conferred on such administrative bodies is clearly distinct and separate from the judicial power conferred on Courts and the decisions pronounced by administrative bodies are similarly distinct and separate in character from judicial decisions pronounced by Court.
Tribunals which fall within the purview of Article 136 (1) of the Constitution occupy a special position of their own under the scheme of our Constitution.
Special matters and questions are entrusted to them for their decision and, in this sense, they share with the Courts one common characteristic, namely, that both the Courts and the tribunals are constituted by the State and are invested with judicial and distinguished from purely administrative or executive functions. They are both adjudicating bodies and they deal with and finally determine disputes between parties which are entrusted to their jurisdiction.
The procedure followed by the Courts is regularly prescribed and in discharging their functions and exercising their powers, the Courts have to conform to that procedure.
The procedure which the tribunals have to follow May not always be so strictly prescribed, but the approach adopted both by the courts and the tribunals is substantially the same, and there is no essential difference between the functions that they discharge.
As in the case of Courts, so in the case of tribunals, it is the State’s inherent judicial power which has been transferred and by virtue of the said power, it is the State’s inherent judicial function which they discharge.
Judicial functions and judicial powers are one of the essential attributes of a sovereign State and, on consideration of policy, the State transfers its judicial functions and powers mainly to the courts established by the Constitution, but this does not affect the competence of the State, by appropriate measures to transfer a part of its judicial powers and functions to tribunals by entrusting to them the task of adjudicating upon special matters and disputes between parties.
It is really not possible or even expedient to attempt to describe exhaustively the features which are common to the tribunals and the Courts and the features which are distinct and separate. The basic and the fundamental feature which is common to both the Courts and the Tribunal is that they discharge judicial functions and exercise judicial powers which inherently vest in a sovereign State.
Therefore, in determining the status of an authority as a tribunal under article 136 (1), the question is whether it has been clothed with the State’s inherent judicial power to deal with disputes between parties and determine them on the merits fairly and objectively.