Libertatem Magazine

Courts Cannot Re-Appreciate Evidentiary Findings of Disciplinary Enquiry: Supreme Court

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A Division Bench headed by Justice D. Y Chandrachud held that Courts could not overlook the position of the disciplinary authority as a fact-finding authority. The autonomy of the employer in maintaining discipline and efficiency of the service was of importance. This deference and autonomy exercised on “enough evidence” could not be substituted with the view of a judge.

Brief Facts

The Respondent was a police constable who was dismissed from service by a disciplinary enquiry on charges of murder. 

A trial in the Sessions Court concluded in the acquittal of the Respondent. 

He filed a Petition under Article 226 of the Constitution to challenge his dismissal. The Single Bench set aside his petition, thereby approving his dismissal from service.

But, the Division Bench of the High Court reversed the judgment. It was concluded that there was no evidence in the disciplinary enquiry to the finding that the Respondent murdered while on leave from duty. 

The Division Bench granted the Respondent reinstatement in service but without back wages for the seventeen years that elapsed since his termination. 

The State filed the present appeal.

Appellant’s Arguments

While exercising judicial review under Article 226 of the Constitution against the findings in a disciplinary enquiry, the Court cannot re-examine the evidence like an Appellate Court. As long as the finding of misconduct was based on some evidence, the High Court could not have interfered in the matter.

Hence, the High Court had transgressed the limitations on its power of judicial review in allowing the appeal. By setting aside the judgment of the Single Judge and interfering with the disciplinary penalty imposed by the Appellants, it had not given appropriate power to the disciplinary proceedings.

Respondent’s Arguments

The departmental enquiry was concluded violating the rules governing the enquiry. The cross-examination of witnesses was contradictory and was not considered in the proceedings.

The murder took place outside the scope of service. Hence it was pertinent for the department to rely on the entire record of the Sessions trial (where he was acquitted). The entirety of evidence in the Sessions Court suggested that the Respondent was not even remotely connected with the said murder.

But, the departmental enquiry was based on a selective examination of the records of the Sessions Court. 

The minor charge against the Respondent is for availing of three days extra casual leave without informing the superior officer. But, the grant of additional casual leave was approved upon his joining, by the superior officer.

The Respondent was then alleged to have concealed his involvement in the crime of murder. If the charge of murder is not established, this charge of concealment will stop to exist.

Court’s Observation

The Bench stated that the argument of involvement in the murder had no nexus with the employment of the Respondent was incorrect. This was because of his nature of employment concerned a position as a member of the police force. The involvement of a member of the police service in a heinous crime (if established) had a direct bearing on the confidence of society in the police. His ability to serve as a member of the force was also affected.

In a review of the evidence gathered on the crime, it indicated that there was a pre-existing hostility between the Respondent and the deceased, Bhanwar Singh. This hostility initially arose in the context of a land dispute. It escalated after the death of the Respondent’s father due to Bhanwar Singh’s inability to treat his father of the snakebite. 

The Respondent openly issued a death threat to Bhanwar Singh. This led Bhanwar Singh to file a police complaint against the Respondent. As regards the incident leading to the death of Bhanwar Singh, the Respondent and his parked tractor was seen close in time and location where the dead body was found.

Further, these circumstances were coupled with the Respondent’s movements at and around the time of the murder. He was in the village on leave for two days coinciding with the murder. 

The Court stated that the Respondent’s connection with the circumstances leading to the death of Bhanwar Singh affected his ability to continue in the State police force is to be considered. The judgment of the Division Bench did not reason whether his continuation in service affects the integrity and reputation of the police force.

The Bench then explained the important principle of the “rule of restraint” of the Courts. It referred to the idea of the determination of misconduct. Whether it was committed or not lies primarily within the domain of the disciplinary authority. The judge does not assume this position.

But, the Court had the jurisdiction to interfere when the findings in the enquiry were based on no evidence or when they suffered from perversity. The authority of the Court was allowed to interfere when the finding or the penalty was disproportionate to the weight of the evidence of misconduct. Yet, this interference cannot mean re-appreciating evidentiary findings of a disciplinary enquiry or to substitute a view that appears to be more appropriate to the judge.

Court’s Decision

The Court exercised its powers under Article 142. They overruled the Division Bench judgment of reinstatement of Respondent to the police force. It ordered cessation of his service and computation of dues on retirement.

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