Filling vacant posts in the IPAB – a double-edged sword

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The Intellectual Property Appellate Board (IPAB) in Chennai made an announcement on November 15, 2017, regarding filling up vacant posts. The positions are for a Vice-Chairman and for Technical Members for Trademark, Patent and Copyright.

The IPAB was set up for a speedy disposal of Intellectual Property disputes by transferring the jurisdiction of High Courts on certain matters to the IPAB. It is under the administrative control of the Department of Industrial Policy and Promotion (DIPP), which falls under the ambit of the Ministry of Commerce and Industry. The IPAB is responsible for hearing appeals from the decisions of the Controller of patents and trademarks, among others. The Technical Member of patents aids in adjudication of appeals against the decision of the Controller, and resolves patent revocations along with a Judicial Member.

On one hand, the filling of these posts will result in increased appointments for hearings and faster disposal of disputes that reach the IPAB. However, the filling of the posts may also turn out to be a double-edged sword due to current issues related to the appointment and removal criteria of the IPAB and other tribunal boards.

The crux of the issue arose when the Department of Revenue of the Ministry of Finance notified in the Gazette of India, the Tribunal, Appellate Tribunal and other Authorities (Qualifications, Experience and other Conditions of Service of Members) Rules, 2017. These Rules stated new processes for the appointment and removal criteria of persons in the IPAB and other Tribunal Boards.

As per the Rules, the selection committee for posts of Chairperson, Vice-Chairperson and Judicial Members of the IPAB consists of the Chief Justice of India or his nominee, Secretary (DIPP), a Secretary to be nominated by the Central Government, and two experts to be nominated by the Central Government. The selection committee for the posts of Technical Members (Trademark, Patents or Copyright) on the IPAB consists of a member who will be nominated by the Central Government to act as the Chairperson of the Selection Committee, Secretary (DIPP), a Secretary to be nominated by the Central Government, and two experts to be nominated by the Central Government.

As evident, the selection committee for the IPAB posts of Chairperson, Vice-Chairperson, Judicial Members and Technical Members comprises a majority of government-elected executives. Additionally, the removal criteria stated in the Rules places the power of removing the Judges of the IPAB into the hands of the Central Government.

The controversy lies in the fact that, despite the IPAB being a judicial body, the judiciary does not have a considerable role in appointments or removal of persons from the IPAB. The lack of judiciary independence in the running of the IPAB and other tribunals due to the Rules, has resulted in about six challenges before the Supreme Court and four challenges before the High Courts at Delhi, Madras, Bombay, and Gujarat regarding the same.

In past judgements, the High Court and the Supreme Court have repeatedly clarified that the selection committee for appointing persons to the IPAB must be balanced with members from the judiciary and executive, instead of a majority from the executive. Further, any Legislation that does not comply with this decision would be struck down as unconstitutional.

In Shamnad Basheer vs Union Of India, the High Court stated: “the selection process has been left entirely to the Executive, though the functions of the Tribunal are judicial. This act is a direct affront to the basic structure, which is fundamental to the Constitution of India. The 1st respondent has totally overstepped and acted in disregard to the law laid down by the Supreme Court in Union of India Vs R Gandhi, President, Madras Bar Association, [(2011) 10 SCC 1] by turning a blind eye. The directions issued therein are meant to be applicable to all the Tribunals…. It has been consistently held that the judiciary should have a substantial role in the selection. It was also held that the process of appointment should substantially be that of members of judiciary.

Thus, any appointments to the IPAB by the current selection committee according to the Rules would seem unconstitutional and may result in the subsequent overturning of the appointments. Further, since such appointments may be unconstitutional, the cases adjudicated by the appointed persons may face litigation from the involved parties that may allege injustice. Hence, the DIPP would be well-advised to carefully consider whether the time is right for making the appointments for the above-mentioned vacant posts in order to prevent further troubles.

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