SC: Enquiry officers in disciplinary proceedings can put questions to witnesses

The Hon’ble Supreme Court on 10th September 2020, in the matter of Pravin Kumar v. Union of India and Ors. pronounced that while strict rules of evidence are inapplicable to disciplinary proceedings, enquiry officers often put questions to witnesses in such proceedings in order to discover the truth. Indeed, it may be necessary to do such direct questioning in certain circumstances.

The Hon’ble Supreme Court observed that:

The power of judicial review discharged by Constitutional Courts under Article 226 or 32, or when sitting in appeal under Article 136, is distinct from the appellate power exercised by a departmental appellate authority. (Para 25)

It would be gainsaid that judicial review is an evaluation of the decision­ making process, and not the merits of the decision itself. Judicial Review seeks to ensure fairness in treatment and not fairness of conclusion. It ought to be used to correct manifest errors of law or procedure, which might result in significant injustice; or in case of bias or gross unreasonableness of outcome. (Para 25)

Constitutional Courts while exercising their powers of judicial review would not assume the role of an appellate authority. Their jurisdiction is circumscribed by limits of correcting errors of law, procedural errors leading to manifest injustice or violation of principles of natural justice. Put differently, judicial review is not analogous to venturing into the merits of a case like an appellate authority. (Para 28)

Even in general parlance, where an appellate or reviewing Court/authority comes to a different conclusion, ordinarily the decision under appeal ought not to be disturbed in so far as it remains plausible or is not found ailing with perversity. (Para 30)

While strict rules of evidence are inapplicable to disciplinary proceedings, enquiry officers often put questions to witnesses in such proceedings in order to discover the truth. Indeed, it may be necessary to do such direct questioning in certain circumstances. (Para 31)

It is beyond debate that criminal proceedings are distinct from civil proceedings. It is both possible and common in disciplinary matters to establish charges against a delinquent official by preponderance of probabilities and consequently terminate his services. But the same set of evidence may not be sufficient to take away his liberty under our criminal law jurisprudence. (Para 34)

Such distinction between standards of proof amongst civil and criminal litigation is deliberate, given the differences in stakes, the power imbalance between the parties and the social costs of an erroneous decision. Thus, in a disciplinary enquiry, strict rules of evidence and procedure of a criminal trial are inapplicable, like say, statements made before enquiry officers can be relied upon in certain instances. (Para 34)

The employer always retains the right to conduct an independent disciplinary proceeding, irrespective of the outcome of a criminal proceeding. (Para 35)

Disciplinary Authority has wide discretion in imposing punishment for a proved delinquency, subject of course to principles of proportionality and fair play. Such requirements emanate from Article 14 itself, which prohibits State authorities from treating varying­ degrees of misdeeds with the same broad stroke. Determination of such proportionality is a function of not only the action or intention of the delinquent, but must also factor the financial effect and societal implication of such misconduct. (Para 36)

But unlike in criminal cases, in matters of disciplinary proceedings Courts only interfere on grounds of proportionality when they find that the punishment awarded is inordinate to a high degree, or if the conscience of the Court itself is shocked. Thus, whereas imposition of major penalty (like dismissal, removal, or reduction in rank) would be discriminatory and impermissible for trivial misdeeds; but for grave offences there is a need to send a clear message of deterrence to the society. Charges such as corruption, misappropriation and gross indiscipline are prime examples of the latter category, and ought to be dealt with strictly. (Para 36)

If we were to hold that systematic corruption and its blatant cover­up are inadequate to attract dismissal from service, then the purpose behind having such major penalties, which are explicitly provided for under Article 311 of the Constitution, would be obliterated. (Para 37)

Copy of judgement: Judgement_10-Sep-2020

-Adv. Tushar Kaushik

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *