SC: Court cannot re-appreciate evidentiary findings in a disciplinary enquiry

The Hon’ble Supreme Court, on 29th October 2020, in the matter of The State of Rajasthan & Ors. v. Heem Singh held that the court cannot re-appreciate evidentiary findings in a disciplinary enquiry nor can substitute a view which appears to the judge to be more appropriate.

The Hon’ble Supreme Court observed that:

The standard of standard of proof in disciplinary proceedings is different from that in a criminal trial. (Para 13)

Evidently direct evidence to sustain a charge of conspiracy is difficult to come by even in the course of a criminal trial. (Para 28)

In exercising judicial review in disciplinary matters, there are two ends of the spectrum. The first embodies a rule of restraint. The second defines when interference is permissible. The rule of restraint constricts the ambit of judicial review. This is for a valid reason. The determination of whether a misconduct has been committed lies primarily within the domain of the disciplinary authority. The judge does not assume the mantle of the disciplinary authority. Nor does the judge wear the hat of an employer. Deference to a finding of fact by the disciplinary authority is a recognition of the idea that it is the employer who is responsible for the efficient conduct of their service. Disciplinary enquiries have to abide by the rules of natural justice. But they are not governed by strict rules of evidence which apply to judicial proceedings. The standard of proof is hence not the strict standard which governs a criminal trial, of proof beyond reasonable doubt, but a civil standard governed by a preponderance of probabilities. Within the rule of preponderance, there are varying approaches based on context and subject. The first end of the spectrum is founded on deference and autonomy – deference to the position of the disciplinary authority as a fact finding authority and autonomy of the employer in maintaining discipline and efficiency of the service. At the other end of the spectrum is the principle that the court has the jurisdiction to interfere when the findings in the enquiry are based on no evidence or when they suffer from perversity. A failure to consider vital evidence is an incident of what the law regards as a perverse determination of fact. Proportionality is an entrenched feature of our jurisprudence. Service jurisprudence has recognized it for long years in allowing for the authority of the court to interfere when the finding or the penalty are disproportionate to the weight of the evidence or misconduct. Judicial craft lies in maintaining a steady sail between the banks of these two shores which have been termed as the two ends of the spectrum. (Para 33)

Judges do not rest with a mere recitation of the hands-off mantra when they exercise judicial review. To determine whether the finding in a disciplinary enquiry is based on some evidence an initial or threshold level of scrutiny is undertaken. That is to satisfy the conscience of the court that there is some evidence to support the charge of misconduct and to guard against perversity. But this does not allow the court to re-appreciate evidentiary findings in a disciplinary enquiry or to substitute a view which appears to the judge to be more appropriate. To do so would offend the first principle which has been outlined above. The ultimate guide is the exercise of robust common sense without which the judges’ craft is in vain. (Para 33)

Copy of judgement: Judgement_29-Oct-2020

Adv. Tushar Kaushik

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