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Constitutional Courts Can't Assume Role Of Appellate Authority In Cases Of Disciplinary Inquiries: SC

The State is an artificial juristic entity and like any other juristic entity it can employ persons to discharge its functions. Since India has adopted a federal constitutional structure and scheme, the executive, legislative and judicial functions of the State are distributed and demarcated by the Constitution of India between Union (i. e Centre) and the States (i. e the federated units). The Constitution of India does not expressly define "Union" or "State" (Articles 366 and 367) but their meanings are obvious and clear from the very scheme of the Constitution and its various provisions. For example, Part V of the Constitution of India deals with the Union - its Executive, the Parliament, and the Supreme Court whereas Part VI deals similarly with the States.

Although the legal status of both the categories are fundamentally similar, there are special incidents and terms and conditions of service of State employees which differentiate them from employees of statutory corporations and agencies or instrumentalities of the State e. g they are covered by the protective provisions of Article 311 of the Constitution of India, whereas, the other two categories in public employment are not (although the latter might have similar protection conferred by ordinary law).

Disciplinary Proceedings
The meaning and implication of the expression employees of the "State" has to be understood power of the State under Article 309 of the Constitution of India to prescribe conditions of service by law or by Rules includes the power to regulate disciplinary proceedings against Government servants. Whether the matter is regulated by Rules or under Acts of legislature they have the same effect and, therefore, it is obligatory for the State to act in conformity with those Rules.

The object of providing for and regulating disciplinary proceedings is to punish Government servants guilty of corruption, misbehaviour, misconduct, negligence or inefficiency. An employee who disobeys the Service Rules or displays negligence, inefficiency or insubordination or does anything detrimental to the interests or acts in conflict with official instructions or is guilty of misconduct, is liable to the disciplinary action.

Under Article 311 (2) of the Constitution of India, no member of civil service of the State or who holds a civil post under the State can be dismissed or removed or reduced in rank except after an enquiry in which he/she has been informed of the charges against him/her and given a reasonable opportunity of being heard in respect of those charges and where it is proposed after such inquiry, to impose on him/her any such penalty, until he/she has been given a reasonable opportunity of making representation on the penalty proposed, but only on the basis of evidence adduced during such inquiry.

Disciplinary Authority
In departmental proceedings, the disciplinary authority is the sole Judge of facts and in case an appeal is presented to the appellate authority, the appellate authority has also the power/and jurisdiction to re-appreciate the evidence and come to its own conclusion, on facts, being the sole fact-finding authority. Once findings of fact, based on appreciation of evidence are recorded, the High Court in writ jurisdiction may not normally interfere with those fact findings unless it finds that the recorded findings were based on no evidence or that the findings were wholly perverse and/or legally untenable. The power of Judicial review is confined to the decision-making process. The power of Judicial review conferred on the Constitutional Court or on the Tribunal is not that of an appellate authority. The law on the subject, as evolved by Hon'ble Supreme Court of India is lucid and clear.

Dictum Of Law Laid down by Supreme Court of India
In [State of Andhra Pradesh & Ors. Vs S. Sree Rama Rao, AIR 1963 SC 1723], a Three Judge Bench of Supreme Court held that the High Court is not a Court of Appeal over the decision of the authorities holding a departmental enquiry against a public servant. It is concerned to determine whether the enquiry is held by an authority competent in that behalf, and according to the procedure prescribed in that behalf, and whether the Rules of Natural Justice are not violated. The Court held as under:

"7. …The High Court is not constituted in a proceeding under Article 226 of the Constitution a Court of Appeal over the decision of the authorities holding a departmental enquiry against a public servant: it is concerned to determine whether the enquiry is held by an authority competent in that behalf, and according to the procedure prescribed in that behalf, and whether the Rules of Natural Justice are not violated. Where there is some evidence, which the authority entrusted with the duty to hold the enquiry has accepted and which evidence may reasonably support the conclusion that the delinquent officer is guilty of the charge, it is not the function of the High Court in a petition for a writ under Article 226 to review the evidence and to arrive at an independent finding on the evidence…."

In [Union of India Vs Sardar Bahadur, 1972 (4) SCC 618] the Hon'ble Supreme Court, held as under:
"A disciplinary proceeding is not a criminal trial. The standard of proof required is that of preponderance of probability and not proof beyond reasonable doubt. If the inference that Nand Kumar was a person beyond reasonable doubt. If the inference that Nand Kumar was a person likely to have official dealings, with the respondent was one which reasonable person would draw from the proved facts of the case, the High Court cannot sit as a Court of Appeal over a decision based on it.

Where there are some relevant materials which the authority has accepted and which materials may reasonably support the conclusion exercising its jurisdiction under Article 226 to review the materials and to arrive at an independent finding on the materials. If the enquiry has been properly held the question of adequacy of reliability of the evidence cannot be canvassed before the High Court."

In [State of Andhra Pradesh & Ors. Vs Chitra Venkata Rao, 1975 (2) SCC 557], the principles have been discussed by the Hon'ble Supreme Court, at Paragraph Nos. 21-24, which read as follows:
21. The scope of Article 226 in dealing with departmental inquiries has come up before this Court. Two propositions were laid down by this Court in State of Andhra Pradesh & Ors. Vs S. Sree Rama Rao [AIR 1963 SC 1723 : (1964) 3 SCR 25 : (1964) 2 LLJ 150] . First, there is no warrant for the view that in considering whether a public officer is guilty of misconduct charged against him, the Rule followed in criminal trials that an offence is not established unless proved by evidence beyond reasonable doubt to the satisfaction of the Court must be applied.

If that Rule be not applied by a domestic tribunal of inquiry the High Court in a petition under Article 226 of the Constitution is not competent to declare the order of the authorities holding a departmental enquiry invalid. The High Court is not a Court of Appeal under Article 226 over the decision of the authorities holding a departmental enquiry against a public servant.

The Court is concerned to determine whether the enquiry is held by an authority competent in that behalf and according to the procedure prescribed in that behalf, and whether the Rules of Natural Justice are not violated. Second, where there is some evidence which the authority entrusted with the duty to hold the enquiry has accepted and which evidence may reasonably support the conclusion that the delinquent officer is guilty of the charge, it is not the function of the High Court to review the evidence and to arrive at an independent finding on the evidence.

The High Court may interfere where the departmental authorities have held the proceedings against the delinquent in a manner inconsistent with the Rules of Natural Justice or in violation of the Statutory Rules prescribing the mode of enquiry or where the authorities have disabled themselves from reaching a fair decision by some considerations extraneous to the evidence and the merits of the case or by allowing themselves to be influenced by irrelevant considerations or where the conclusion on the very face of it is so wholly arbitrary and capricious that no reasonable person could ever have arrived at that conclusion.

The departmental authorities are, if the enquiry is otherwise properly held, the sole judges of facts and if there is some legal evidence on which their findings can be based, the adequacy or reliability of that evidence is not a matter which can be permitted to be canvassed before the High Court in a proceeding for a Writ under Article 226.

22. Again, this Court in Railway Board, representing the Union of India, New Delhi Vs Niranjan Singh [(1969) 1 SCC 502 : (1969) 3 SCR 548] said that the High Court does not interfere with the conclusion of the disciplinary authority unless the finding is not supported by any evidence or it can be said that no reasonable person could have reached such a finding.

In Niranjan Singh case this Court held that the High Court exceeded its powers in interfering with the findings of the disciplinary authority on the charge that the respondent was instrumental in compelling the shut-down of an air compressor at about 8.15 a.m. on May 31, 1956. This Court said that the Enquiry Committee felt that the evidence of two persons that the respondent led a group of strikers and compelled them to close down their compressor could not be accepted at its face value.

The General Manager did not agree with the Enquiry Committee on that point. The General Manager accepted the evidence. This Court said that it was open to the General Manager to do so and he was not bound by the conclusion reached by the committee. This Court held that the conclusion reached by the disciplinary authority should prevail and the High Court should not have interfered with the conclusion.

23. The jurisdiction to issue a writ of certiorari under Article 226 is a supervisory jurisdiction. The Court exercises it not as an appellate court. The findings of fact reached by an inferior court or tribunal as a result of the appreciation of evidence are not reopened or questioned in writ proceedings. An error of law which is apparent on the face of the record can be corrected by a writ, but not an error of fact, however grave it may appear to be.

In regard to a finding of fact recorded by a tribunal, a writ can be issued if it is shown that in recording the said finding, the tribunal had erroneously refused to admit admissible and material evidence, or had erroneously admitted inadmissible evidence which has influenced the impugned finding. Again if a finding of fact is based on no evidence, that would be regarded as an error of law which can be corrected by a writ of certiorari.

A finding of fact recorded by the Tribunal cannot be challenged on the ground that the relevant and material evidence adduced before the Tribunal is insufficient or inadequate to sustain a finding. The adequacy or sufficiency of evidence led on a point and the inference of fact to be drawn from the said finding are within the exclusive jurisdiction of the Tribunal. See Syed Yakoob Vs K. S. Radhakrishnan [AIR 1964 SC 477 (1964) 5 SCR 64].

24. The High Court in the present case assessed the entire evidence and came to its own conclusion. The High Court was not justified to do so. Apart from the aspect that the High Court does not correct a finding of fact on the ground that the evidence is not sufficient or adequate, the evidence in the present case which was considered by the Tribunal cannot be scanned by the High Court to justify the conclusion that there is no evidence which would justify the finding of the Tribunal that the respondent did not make the journey.

The Tribunal gave reasons for its conclusions. It is not possible for the High Court to say that no reasonable person could have arrived at these conclusions. The High Court reviewed the evidence, reassessed the evidence and then rejected the evidence as no evidence. That is precisely what the High Court in exercising jurisdiction to issue a writ of certiorari should not do."

In [Union of India Vs Parma Nanda, 1989 (2) SCC 177], the Hon'ble Supreme Court observed as under:
"We must unequivocally state that the jurisdiction of the Tribunal to interfere with the disciplinary matters or punishment cannot be equated with an appellate jurisdiction. The Tribunal cannot interfere with the findings of the Inquiry Officer or competent authority where they are not arbitrary or utterly perverse. It is appropriate to remember that the power to impose penalty on a delinquent officer is conferred on the competent authority either by an Act of legislature or Rules made under the proviso to Article 309 of the Constitution.

If there has been an enquiry consistent with the Rules and in accordance with principles of Natural Justice what punishment would meet the ends of justice is a matter exclusively within the jurisdiction of the competent authority. If the penalty can lawfully be imposed and is imposed on the proved misconduct, the Tribunal has no power to substitute its own discretion for that of the authority."

In [B. C. Chaturvedi Vs Union of India & Ors., 1995 (6) SCC 749], again, a Three Judge Bench of Supreme Court held that power of Judicial review is not an appeal from a decision but a review of the manner in which the decision is made. Power of Judicial review is meant to ensure that the individual receives fair treatment and not to ensure that the conclusion which the authority reaches is necessarily correct in the eyes of the Court. The Court/Tribunal in its power of Judicial review does not act as an appellate authority to re-appreciate the evidence and to arrive at its own independent findings on the evidence. It was held as under:

12. Judicial review is not an appeal from a decision but a review of the manner in which the decision is made. Power of Judicial review is meant to ensure that the individual receives fair treatment and not to ensure that the conclusion which the authority reaches is necessarily correct in the eye of the Court.

When an inquiry is conducted on charges of misconduct by a public servant, the Court/Tribunal is concerned to determine whether the inquiry was held by a competent officer or whether Rules of Natural Justice are complied with. Whether the findings or conclusions are based on some evidence, the authority entrusted with the power to hold inquiry has jurisdiction, power and authority to reach a finding of fact or conclusion. But that finding must be based on some evidence. Neither the technical Rules of Evidence Act nor of proof of fact or evidence as defined therein, apply to disciplinary proceeding.

When the authority accepts that evidence and conclusion receives support therefrom, the disciplinary authority is entitled to hold that the delinquent officer is guilty of the charge. The Court/Tribunal in its power of Judicial review does not act as appellate authority to re-appreciate the evidence and to arrive at its own independent findings on the evidence.

The Court/Tribunal may interfere where the authority held the proceedings against the delinquent officer in a manner inconsistent with the Rules of Natural Justice or in violation of Statutory Rules prescribing the mode of inquiry or where the conclusion or finding reached by the disciplinary authority is based on no evidence. If the conclusion or finding be such as no reasonable person would have ever reached, the Court/Tribunal may interfere with the conclusion or the finding, and mould the relief so as to make it appropriate to the facts of each case.

13. The disciplinary authority is the sole Judge of facts. Where appeal is presented. The appellate authority has co- extensive power to re-appreciate the evidence or the nature of punishment. In a disciplinary inquiry the strict proof of legal evidence and findings on that evidence are not relevant. Adequacy of evidence or reliability of evidence cannot be permitted to be canvassed before the Court/Tribunal.

In Union of India Vs. H. C. Goel [(1964) 4 SCR 781], this Court held at Page 728 that if the conclusion, upon consideration of the evidence, reached by the disciplinary authority, is perverse or suffers from patent error on the face of the record or based on no evidence at all, a writ of certiorari could be issued."

In [State of Tamil Naidu Vs S. Subramaniam, 1996 (7) SCC 509], a Three Judge Bench of Hon'ble Supreme Court, observed as follows:
5. The only question is: Whether the Tribunal was right in its conclusion to appreciate the evidence and to reach its own finding that the charge has not been proved. The Tribunal is not a Court of Appeal.

The power of Judicial review of the High Court under Article 226 of the Constitution of India was taken away by the power under Article 323-A and invested the same in the Tribunal by Central Administrative Tribunals Act, 1985. It is settled law that the Tribunal has only power of Judicial review of the administrative action of the appellant on complaints relating to service conditions of employees.

It is the exclusive domain of the disciplinary authority to consider the evidence on record and to record findings whether the charge has been proved or not. It is equally settled law that technical Rules of Evidence have no application for the disciplinary proceedings and the authority is to consider the material on record. In Judicial review, it is settled law that the Court or the Tribunal has no power to trench on the jurisdiction to appreciate the evidence and to arrive at its own conclusion. Judicial review is not an appeal from a decision but a review of the manner in which the decision is made.

It is meant to ensure that the delinquent receives fair treatment and not to ensure that the conclusion which the authority reaches is necessarily correct in the view of the Court or Tribunal. When the conclusion reached by the authority is based on evidence, Tribunal is devoid of power to re-appreciate the evidence and would (sic) come to its own conclusion on the proof of the charge.

The only consideration the Court/Tribunal has in its judicial review is to consider whether the conclusion is based on evidence on record and supports the finding or whether the conclusion is based on no evidence. This is the consistent view of this Court Vide B. C. Chaturvedi Vs Union of India [(1995) 6 SCC 749 : 1996 SCC (L&S) 80 : (1996) 32 ATC 44 : JT (1995) 8 SC 65] , State of T. N Vs T. V. Venugopalan [(1994) 6 SCC 302 : 1994 SCC (L&S) 1385: (1994) 28 ATC 294] (SCC Para 7), Union of India Vs Upendra Singh [(1994) 3 SCC 357 : 1994 SCC (L&S) 768 : (1994) 27 ATC 200] (SCC at Para 6), Govt. of T. N Vs A. Rajapandian [(1995) 1 SCC 216 : 1995 SCC (L&S) 292 : (1995) 29 ATC 89] (SCC Para 4) and B. C. Chaturvedi Vs Union of India [(1995) 6 SCC 749 : 1996 SCC (L&S) 80 : (1996) 32 ATC 44 : JT (1995) 8 SC 65] (SCC at PP. 759-60).

In view of the settled legal position, the Tribunal has committed serious error of law in appreciation of the evidence and in coming to its own conclusion that the charge had not been proved. Thus we hold that the view of the Tribunal is ex facie illegal. The order is accordingly set aside. OA/TP/WP stands dismissed."

In ["Rae Bareli Kshetriya Gramin Bank Vs Bhola Nath Singh & Ors.", 1997 (3) SCC 657], the Hon'ble Supreme Court at Paragraph 6 of the Judgment, answered a question as to whether the High Court would be correct in law to appreciate the evidence, the manner in which the evidence was recorded and record a finding in that behalf. The Hon'ble Supreme Court held as follows:
The Judicial review is not akin to adjudication of the case on merits as an appellate authority. The High Court, in the proceedings under Article 226 does not act as an appellate authority but exercises within the limits of Judicial review to correct errors of law or procedural errors leading to manifest injustice or violation of Principles of Natural Justice.

Hon'ble Supreme Court in ["Commissioner and Secretary to the Government Vs C. Shanmugam", 1998 (2) SCC 394], considered a case of compulsory retirement, which was interfered by the Tribunal on the ground of absence of evidence.

The Hon'ble Apex Court, after considering various Judgments on the point, held that only in the absence of any evidence, i.e., no evidence or if there was any perversity, the Court can interfere. At Paragraph 2 of the Judgment, the Hon'ble Supreme Court held as follows:
"It is seen from the order of the Tribunal that at the regular departmental enquiry held, the employees who were present at the time of the incident in the office on 02.08.1980 were examined and they all supported the charges (misbehaviour with the superior officer) levelled against the Respondent/delinquent.

The Tribunal on a re-appreciation of evidence, in Judicial review, was of the view that the enquiry report based on such evidence cannot be totally accepted as free from bias and an order passed on such reports cannot be accepted as a fair and just one. Assailing this view of the Tribunal, the Learned Counsel appearing for the appellants brought to our notice three judgments of this Court reported as State of T. N. Vs Subramanian, Govt of T. N Vs A. Rajapandian and State of Haryana Vs Rattan Singh. In State of T. N. Vs Suibramaniam, a Three-Judge Bench of this Court observed as follows: (SCC. PP. 511-12, Para 5) "The only question is: Whether the Tribunal was right in its conclusion to appreciate the evidence to reach its own finding that the charge has not been proved. The Tribunal is not a Court of Appeal.

The power of Judicial review of the High Court under Article 226 of the Constitution of India was taken away by the power under Article 323-A and invested the same in the Tribunal by the Central Administrative Tribunal Act. It is settled law that the Tribunal has only power of Judicial review of the administrative action of the appellant on complaints relating to service conditions of employees. It is the exclusive domain of the disciplinary authority to consider the evidence on record and to record the findings whether the charge has been proved or not.

It is equally settled law that technical Rules of Evidence have no application for the disciplinary proceedings and the authority is to consider the material on record. In Judicial review, it is settled law that the Court or the Tribunal has no power to trench on the jurisdiction to appreciate the evidence and to arrive at its own conclusion. Judicial review is not an appeal from a decision but a review of the manner in which the decision is made.

It is meant to ensure that the delinquent receives fair treatment and not to ensure that the conclusion which the authority reaches is necessarily correct in the view of the Court or Tribunal. When the conclusion reached by the authority is based on evidence, Tribunal is devoid of power to re-appreciate the evidence and would (sic) come to its own conclusions on the proof of the charge. The only consideration the Court/Tribunal has in its judicial review is to consider whether the conclusion is based on evidence on record and supports the finding or whether the conclusion is based on no evidence."

In [Union of India & Ors Vs A. Nagamalleshwar Rao, 1998 (1) SCC 700], the Hon'ble Supreme Court held thus:
"5. It was contended by the Learned Counsel for the appellant, and in our opinion rightly, that the approach of the Tribunal was erroneous as it had proceeded to examine the inquiry proceedings as if it was hearing an appeal in a criminal case. Sanyasi Rao was an officer working in the Office of the Divisional Engineer (Telecom) and was conversant with the practice and procedure followed in that office in making entries in the Z Register. Merely because he had no personal knowledge about the practice prevailing in 1980 and the entry relating to the respondent, his evidence could not have been regarded by the Tribunal as no evidence.

The Tribunal had committed an error of law and also exceeded its jurisdiction in holding that the extract which was produced from the Z Register was not legal evidence and could not have been relied upon the Inquiry Officer. The Tribunal failed to appreciate that the register was maintained in the Office of Divisional Engineer as an official record and it was thus in the nature of a public document. It was duly authenticated by a competent officer. The Tribunal after stating that the strict Rules of Procedure and proof do not apply to a departmental inquiry, committed an error in applying the same in this case. It is really surprising that in spite of the clear position of law in this behalf and as regards the jurisdiction of the Tribunal in such cases, the Tribunal thought it fit to examine the evidence produced before the Inquiry Officer as if it was a court of appeal."

In [Apparel Expport Promotion Council Vs A. K. Chopra, 1999 (1) SCC 759], the Hon'ble Supreme Court at Paragraphs 16 & 17, held as follows:
"16. The High Court appears to have overlooked the settled position that in departmental proceedings, the disciplinary authority is the sole Judge of facts and in case an appeal is presented to the appellate authority, the appellate authority has also the power/and jurisdiction to re-appreciate the evidence and come to its own conclusion, on facts, being the sole fact-finding authorities.

Once findings of fact, based on appreciation of evidence are recorded, the High Court in writ jurisdiction may not normally interfere with those factual findings unless it finds that the recorded findings were based either on no evidence or that the findings were wholly perverse and/or legally untenable. The adequacy or inadequacy of the evidence is not permitted to be canvassed before the High Court.

Since the High Court does not sit as an appellate authority over the factual findings recorded during departmental proceedings, while exercising the power of Judicial review, the High Court cannot, normally speaking, substitute its own conclusion, with regard to the guilt of the delinquent, for that of the departmental authorities. Even insofar as imposition of penalty or punishment is concerned, unless the punishment or penalty imposed by the disciplinary or the departmental appellate authority, is either impermissible or such that it shocks the conscience of the High Court, it should not normally substitute its own opinion and impose some other punishment or penalty.

Both the Learned Single Judge and the Division Bench of the High Court, it appears, ignored the well-settled principle that even though Judicial review of administrative action must remain flexible and its dimension not closed, yet the Court, in exercise of the power of Judicial review, is not concerned with the correctness of the findings of the fact on the basis of which the orders are made so long as those findings are reasonably supported by evidence and have been arrived at through proceedings which cannot be faulted with for procedural illegalities or irregularities which vitiate the process by which the decision was arrived at. Judicial review, it must be remembered, is directed not against the decision, but is confined to the examination of the decision-making process. Lord Hailsham in Chief Constable of the North Wales Police v. Evans reported in 1982 (3) ALL. ER 141 HL observed:
"The purpose of Judicial review is to ensure that the individual receives fair treatment, and not to ensure that the authority, after according fair treatment, reaches, on a matter which it is authorised or enjoined by law to decide for itself, a conclusion which is correct in the eyes of the Court."

17. Judicial review, not being an appeal from a decision, but a review of the manner in which the decision was arrived at, the Court, while exercising the power of judicial review, must remain conscious of the fact that if the decision has been arrived at by the administrative authority after following the principles established by law and the Rules of Natural Justice and the individual has received a fair treatment to meet the case against him, the Court cannot substitute its judgment for that of the administrative authority on a matter which fell squarely within the sphere of jurisdiction of that authority."

The above position was reiterated in ["Commandant Vs D. Paul", 1999 SCC (L&S) 789], and at Paragraphs 4 & 5 of the Judgment, the Hon'ble Supreme Court held as follows:
4. .........It is not the function of the Tribunal to review the decision and to arrive at an independent finding on the evidence and that if there be some legal evidence on which the findings can be based, the adequacy or the reliability of that evidence is not a matter which can be permitted to be canvassed before the Tribunal."
"5. ............ It is settled law that the Tribunal, while exercising its power of Judicial review in respect of disciplinary action taken against the a government servant, cannot re- appreciate the evidence adduced to prove the charges in the disciplinary proceedings."
In ["High Court of Judicature at Bombay through its Registrar v. Shashikant S. Patil & Anr.", 2000 (1) SCC 416], Supreme Court held that interference with the decision of departmental authorities is permitted if such authority had held proceedings in violation of the Principles of Natural Justice or in violation of statutory regulations prescribing the mode of such enquiry while exercising jurisdiction under Article 226 of the Constitution. It was held as under:

16. The Division Bench of the High Court seems to have approached the case as though it was an appeal against the order of the administrative/disciplinary authority of the High Court. Interference with the decision of departmental authorities can be permitted, while exercising jurisdiction under Article 226 of the Constitution if such authority had held proceedings in violation of the Principles of Natural Justice or in violation of statutory regulations prescribing the mode of such enquiry or if the decision of the authority is vitiated by considerations extraneous to the evidence and merits of the case, or if the conclusion made by the authority, on the very face of it, is wholly arbitrary or capricious that no reasonable person could have arrived at such a conclusion, or grounds very similar to the above.

But we cannot overlook that the departmental authority (in this case the Disciplinary Committee of the High Court) is the sole Judge of the facts, if the enquiry has been properly conducted. The settled legal position is that if there is some legal evidence on which the findings can be based, then adequacy or even reliability of that evidence is not a matter for canvassing before the High Court in a Writ Petition filed under Article 226 of the Constitution."

Supreme Court of India in ["Ajit Kumar Nag Vs General Manager (PJ), Indian Oil Corpn. Ltd., Haldia & Ors.", (2005) 7 SCC 764] held that the degree of proof which is necessary to order a conviction is different from the degree of proof necessary to record the commission of delinquency. In criminal law, burden of proof is on the prosecution and unless the prosecution is able to prove the guilt of the accused "beyond reasonable doubt", he cannot be convicted by a court of law. In a departmental enquiry, on the other hand, penalty can be imposed on the delinquent officer on a finding recorded on the basis of "preponderance of probability". It was held as under:

11. As far as acquittal of the appellant by a criminal court is concerned, in our opinion, the said order does not preclude the Corporation from taking an action if it is otherwise permissible. In our judgment, the law is fairly well settled.

Acquittal by a criminal court would not debar an employer from exercising power in accordance with the Rules and Regulations in force. The two proceedings, criminal and departmental, are entirely different. They operate in different fields and have different objectives. Whereas the object of criminal trial is to inflict appropriate punishment on the offender, the purpose of enquiry proceedings is to deal with the delinquent departmentally and to impose penalty in accordance with the service rules.

In a criminal trial, incriminating statement made by the accused in certain circumstances or before certain officers is totally inadmissible in evidence. Such strict Rules of Evidence and procedure would not apply to departmental proceedings. The degree of proof which is necessary to order a conviction is different from the degree of proof necessary to record the commission of delinquency.

The Rule relating to appreciation of evidence in the two proceedings is also not similar. In criminal law, burden of proof is on the prosecution and unless the prosecution is able to prove the guilt of the accused "beyond reasonable doubt", he cannot be convicted by a Court of Law. In a departmental enquiry, on the other hand, penalty can be imposed on the delinquent officer on a finding recorded on the basis of "preponderance of probability".

Acquittal of the appellant by a Judicial Magistrate, therefore, does not ipso facto absolve him from the liability under the disciplinary jurisdiction of the Corporation. We are, therefore, unable to uphold the contention of the appellant that since he was acquitted by a criminal court, the impugned order dismissing him from service deserves to be quashed and set aside." (Emphasis Supplied)

Again Supreme Court in [Noida Entrepreneurs Association Vs Noida & Ors., (2007) 10 SCC 385] held that the criminal prosecution is launched for an offence for violation of a duty, the offender owes to the society or for breach of which law has provided that the offender shall make satisfaction to the public, whereas, the departmental inquiry is to maintain discipline in the service and efficiency of public service. It was held as under:

"11. A bare perusal of the order which has been quoted in its totality goes to show that the same is not based on any rational foundation. The conceptual difference between a departmental inquiry and criminal proceedings has not been kept in view. Even orders passed by the executive have to be tested on the touchstone of reasonableness.

[See Tata Cellular Vs Union of India [(1994) 6 SCC 651] and Teri Oat Estates (P) Ltd. Vs U.T., Chandigarh [(2004) 2 SCC 130] .] The conceptual difference between departmental proceedings and criminal proceedings have been highlighted by this Court in several cases. Reference may be made to Kendriya Vidyalaya Sangathan Vs T. Srinivas [(2004) 7 SCC 442 : 2004 SCC (L&S) 1011] , Hindustan Petroleum Corpn. Ltd. Vs Sarvesh Berry [(2005) 10 SCC 471 : 2005 SCC (Cri) 1605] and Uttaranchal RTC Vs Mansaram Nainwal [(2006) 6 SCC 366 : 2006 SCC (L&S) 1341]

8. … The purpose of departmental inquiry and of prosecution are two different and distinct aspects. The criminal prosecution is launched for an offense for violation of a duty, the offender owes to the society or for breach of which law has provided that the offender shall make satisfaction to the public. So crime is an act of commission in violation of law or of omission of public duty. The departmental inquiry is to maintain discipline in the service and efficiency of public service.

It would, therefore, be expedient that the disciplinary proceedings are conducted and completed as expeditiously as possible. It is not, therefore, desirable to lay down any guidelines as inflexible Rules in which the departmental proceedings may or may not be stayed pending trial in the criminal cases against the delinquent officer. Each case requires to be considered in the backdrop of its own facts and circumstances.

There would be no bar to proceed simultaneously with departmental inquiry and trial of a criminal case unless the charge in the criminal trial is of grave nature involving complicated questions of fact and law. Offense generally implies infringement of public duty, as distinguished from mere private rights punishable under criminal law. When the trial for a criminal offense is conducted it should be in accordance with proof of the offense as per the evidence defined under the provisions of the Indian Evidence Act, 1872 [in short 'the Evidence Act']. The converse is the case of departmental inquiry.

The inquiry in a departmental proceeding relates to conduct or breach of duty of the delinquent officer to punish him for his misconduct defined under the relevant statutory rules or law. That the strict standard of proof or applicability of the Evidence Act stands excluded is a settled legal position.

… Under these circumstances, what is required to be seen is whether the departmental inquiry would seriously prejudice the delinquent in his defense at the trial in a criminal case. It is always a question of fact to be considered in each case depending on its own facts and circumstances.

In [State Bank of Bikaner and Jaipur Vs Nemi Chand Nalwaya, 2011 (4) SCC 584], Supreme Court held that the Courts will not act as an Appellate Court and reassess the evidence led in the domestic enquiry, nor interfere on the ground that another view is possible on the material on record. If the enquiry has been fairly and properly held and the findings are based on evidence, the question of adequacy of the evidence or the reliable nature of the evidence will not be ground for interfering with the findings in departmental enquiries. The Court held as under:

7. It is now well settled that the Courts will not act as an Appellate Court and reassess the evidence led in the domestic enquiry, nor interfere on the ground that another view is possible on the material on record. If the enquiry has been fairly and properly held and the findings are based on evidence, the question of adequacy of the evidence or the reliable nature of the evidence will not be grounds for interfering with the findings in departmental enquiries. Therefore, Courts will not interfere with findings of fact recorded in departmental enquiries, except where such findings are based on no evidence or where they are clearly perverse.

The test to find out perversity is to see whether a tribunal acting reasonably could have arrived at such conclusion or finding, on the material on record. Courts will however interfere with the findings in disciplinary matters, if Principles of Natural Justice or statutory regulations have been violated or if the order is found to be arbitrary, capricious, mala fide or based on extraneous considerations.
(Vide B. C. Chaturvedi Vs. Union of India - 1995 (6) SCC 749, Union of India Vs. G. Gunayuthan - 1997 (7) SCC 463, and Bank of India Vs. Degala Suryanarayana - 1999 (5) SCC 762, High Court of Judicature at Bombay Vs. Shahsi Kant S Patil - 2001 (1) SCC416).

12. The fact that the criminal court subsequently acquitted the Respondent by giving him the benefit of doubt, will not in any way render a completed disciplinary proceedings invalid nor affect the validity of the finding of guilt or consequential punishment. The standard of proof required in criminal proceedings being different from the standard of proof required in departmental enquiries, the same charges and evidence may lead to different results in the two proceedings, that is, finding of guilt in departmental proceedings and an acquittal by giving benefit of doubt in the criminal proceedings.

This is more so when the departmental proceedings are more proximate to the incident, in point of time, when compared to the criminal proceedings. The findings by the criminal court will have no effect on previously concluded domestic enquiry. An employee who allows the findings in the enquiry and the punishment by the disciplinary authority to attain finality by non-challenge, cannot after several years, challenge the decision on the ground that subsequently, the criminal court has acquitted him."

In another Judgement reported as [Union of India Vs P. Gunasekaran, (2015) 2 SCC 6106], Supreme Court held that while re-appreciating evidence the High Court cannot act as an appellate authority in the disciplinary proceedings. The Court held the parameters as to when the High Court shall not interfere in the disciplinary proceedings:

"12. Despite the well-settled position, it is painfully disturbing to note that the High Court has acted as an appellate authority in the disciplinary proceedings, re-appreciating even the evidence before the enquiry officer. The finding on Charge I was accepted by the disciplinary authority and was also endorsed by the Central Administrative Tribunal. In disciplinary proceedings, the High Court is not and cannot act as a second Court of First Appeal. The High Court, in exercise of its powers under Articles 226/227 of the Constitution of India, shall not venture into re-appreciation of the evidence.

The High Court can only see whether:
  1. the enquiry is held by a competent authority
  2. the enquiry is held according to the procedure prescribed in that behalf;
  3. there is violation of the Principles of Natural Justice in conducting the proceedings;
  4. the authorities have disabled themselves from reaching a fair conclusion by some considerations extraneous to the evidence and merits of the case;
  5. the authorities have allowed themselves to be influenced by irrelevant or extraneous considerations
  6. the conclusion, on the very face of it, is so wholly arbitrary and capricious that no reasonable person could ever have arrived at such conclusion;
  7. the disciplinary authority had erroneously failed to admit the admissible and material evidence;
  8. the disciplinary authority had erroneously admitted inadmissible evidence which influenced the finding;
  9. the finding of fact is based on no evidence.


13. Under Article 226/227 of the Constitution of India, the High Court shall not:
  1. re-appreciate the evidence
  2. interfere with the conclusions in the enquiry, in case the same has been conducted in accordance with law;
  3. go into the adequacy of the evidence;
  4. go into the reliability of the evidence;
  5. interfere, if there be some legal evidence on which findings can be based.
  6. correct the error of fact however grave it may appear to be;
  7. go into the proportionality of punishment unless it shocks its conscience.

In recent Judgement reported as [Deputy General Manager (Appellate Authority) & Others Vs Ajay Kumar Srivastava, 2021 (2) SCC 612], wherein, Hon'ble Supreme Court held as under:
"24. It is thus settled that the power of judicial review, of the constitutional courts, is an evaluation of the decision­making process and not the merits of the decision itself. It is to ensure fairness in treatment and not to ensure fairness of conclusion.

The court/tribunal may interfere in the proceedings held against the delinquent if it is, in any manner, inconsistent with the rules of natural justice or in violation of the statutory Rules prescribing the mode of enquiry or where the conclusion or finding reached by the disciplinary authority is based on no evidence.

If the conclusion or finding be such as no reasonable person would have ever reached or where the conclusions upon consideration of the evidence reached by the disciplinary authority are perverse or suffer from patent error on the face of record or based on no evidence at all, a writ of certiorari could be issued. To sum up, the scope of Judicial review cannot be extended to the examination of correctness or reasonableness of a decision of authority as a matter of fact.

25. When the disciplinary enquiry is conducted for the alleged misconduct against the public servant, the Court is to examine and determine:
  1. whether the enquiry was held by the competent authority;
  2. whether Rules of Natural Justice are complied with;
  3. whether the findings or conclusions are based on some evidence and authority has power and jurisdiction to reach finding of fact or conclusion.

26. It is well settled that where the enquiry officer is not the disciplinary authority, on receiving the report of enquiry, the disciplinary authority may or may not agree with the findings recorded by the former, in case of disagreement, the disciplinary authority has to record the reasons for disagreement and after affording an opportunity of hearing to the delinquent may record his own findings if the evidence available on record be sufficient for such exercise or else to remit the case to the enquiry officer for further enquiry.

27. It is true that strict Rules of Evidence are not applicable to departmental enquiry proceedings. However, the only requirement of law is that the allegation against the delinquent must be established by such evidence acting upon which a reasonable person acting reasonably and with objectivity may arrive at a finding upholding the gravity of the charge against the delinquent employee. It is true that mere conjecture or surmises cannot sustain the finding of guilt even in the departmental enquiry proceedings.

28. The Constitutional Court while exercising its jurisdiction of Judicial review under Article 226 or Article 136 of the Constitution would not interfere with the findings of fact arrived at in the departmental enquiry proceedings except in a case of mala fides or perversity i.e. where there is no evidence to support a finding or where a finding is such that no man acting reasonably and with objectivity could have arrived at those findings and so long as there is some evidence to support the conclusion arrived at by the departmental authority, the same has to be sustained.

Conclusion
It is well settled that Judicial review is not an appeal from a decision but a review of the manner in which the decision is made. Power of Judicial review is meant to ensure that the individual receives fair treatment and not to ensure that the conclusion which the authority reaches is necessarily correct in the eye of the Court.

When an inquiry is conducted on charges of misconduct by a public servant, the Court/Tribunal is concerned to determine whether the inquiry was held by a competent officer or whether Rules of Natural Justice are complied with. Whether the findings or conclusions are based on some evidence, the authority entrusted with the power to hold inquiry has jurisdiction, power and authority to reach a finding of fact or conclusion. But that finding must be based on some evidence.

Neither the technical Rules of Evidence Act nor of proof of fact or evidence as defined therein, apply to disciplinary proceeding. When the authority accepts that evidence and conclusion receives support therefrom, the disciplinary authority is entitled to hold that the delinquent officer is guilty of the charge. The Court/Tribunal in its power of Judicial review does not act as appellate authority to re-appreciate the evidence and to arrive at its own independent findings on the evidence.

The Court/Tribunal may interfere where the authority held the proceedings against the delinquent officer in a manner inconsistent with the Rules of Natural Justice or in violation of statutory Rules prescribing the mode of inquiry or where the conclusion or finding reached by the disciplinary authority is based on no evidence. If the conclusion or finding be such as no reasonable person would have ever reached, the Court/Tribunal may interfere with the conclusion or the finding, and mould the relief so as to make it appropriate to the facts of each case.

The disciplinary authority is the sole judge of facts. Where appeal is presented, the appellate authority has coextensive power to re-appreciate the evidence or the nature of punishment. In a disciplinary inquiry, the strict proof of legal evidence and findings on that evidence are not relevant. Adequacy of evidence or reliability of evidence cannot be permitted to be canvassed before the Court/Tribunal.

Written By: Dinesh Singh Chauhan, Advocate - J&K High Court of Judicature, Jammu.
Email: [email protected], [email protected]

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