Delhi High Court: Academic Judgment Matters are Not for the Courts To Entertain

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In Divyesh J Pathak and others v. National Board of Examination and others, the resident doctors filed a petition. The petition requested quashing of the NBE’s impugned public notice. The doctors are pursuing their third or final year of Diplomate of National Board (DNB).

Brief Facts

The Ministry of Health and Family Welfare established the National Board of Examinations.  NBE, established in 1975, is an independent body under the Government of India. It standardizes and regulates postgraduate medical education and examination in India. NBE carries out competitive examinations for admission to super-speciality and fellowship courses. The NBE accredited institution offers these courses in India.

On 04.04.2020, the NBE released a ‘Public Notice’. It extended the training duration of all DNB candidates. These candidates were the one whose tenures were to end between 01.04.2020 and 30.06.2020. It included all days up to six weeks and until further notice.

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Aggrieved thereby, the petitioners filed the present petition. The Union of India through the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare is the respondent No.2.

Contentions of the Petitioner

The learned counsel for the petitioners was Mr Sahil Tagotra. He submitted that the Public Notice issued by NBE was unenforceable and was liable to be struck down. This is for the following reasons:

The NBE does not have the power to vary the training period of the petitioners.

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Discrimination existed between first-year and second-year trainee doctors and final-year trainee doctors. The extension of the training period was only for the latter.

Further, the Public Notice suffered from the vice of confusion. The training period was not only extended by six weeks. It was also left open-ended by mentioning “until further notice”.

He contended that the explanation offered by NBE was a sham explanation. This was on account of the COVID-19 due to the prevailing extraordinary situation. The petitioners were super-speciality trainees. But, the government had not ordered the closing of such units of hospitals. Thus, the pandemic did not affect the petitioners’ training.

Contentions of the Respondent

Ms Maninder Acharya learned Additional Solicitor General advanced submissions in this case. She represented NBE and Union of India.

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She argued that the public interest justifies the extension of training. Because of the disruption due to the pandemic, a fresh infusion of DNB applicants was not viable. Consequently, there was no entrance exam. If the final year DNB students were allowed to leave, it would have resulted in an exodus with no infusion. Hence, this will lead to a vacuum, which would have impacted the public health system.

The learned ASG submitted that the NBE was fully empowered to vary its contents. This bulletin published yearly by NBE preceding entrance exams declared its policy. Being its author, it reserves the power to do so in the Information Bulletins published.

There can be no promissory estoppel in matters relating to education. The impugned Public Notice was not discriminatory. This is because the final year students leave on the issuance of ‘Certificate of Training’. On the other hand, the first and second-year students do not leave. Moreover, the final year students are more skilled than the other year students. Thus, they all formed different categories, and there was no discrimination.

Court’s Observation

The Court observed that there are no merits in the objections raised. The objections, as stated, are to the Public Notice on 04.04.2020 by the petitioners. The Court reiterated the following:

  1. NBE is competent to vary the terms and contents of the Information Bulletin that it issues.
  2. The doctrine of promissory estoppel is inapplicable to educational matters. Even the doctrine of legitimate expectation is inapplicable.
  3. The Court cannot interfere with NBE’s discretion to extend the training program. This extension took place due to the situation and the COVID-19 impact.
  4. The Court refuses to involve here because the decision has been taken by the NBE. NBE regulates the standard of postgraduate medical education. Moreover, the decision is of the experts in the relevant area.
  5. The Public Notice is not discriminatory. It also does not suffer from any uncertainty. The extension for six weeks and then, till further notice is correct. The prediction of the intensity of COVID-19 justifies the same.
  6. Lastly, there is a complete absence of malice in the decision. Hence, the act to extend the training period to vitiate the Public Notice is not malice.

Held

The Delhi High Court pronounced that the petition is meritless. Hence, accordingly, the Court dismissed the petition.


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