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“Judicial Review Cannot Extend to Deciding Disciplinary Proceedings on Merits as Speaking Order Provided for All Charges Except One: Supreme Court”

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This case discussed the procedure to be followed by the disciplinary authority while conducting a departmental inquiry against any public servant and how it is to be conducted. 

Brief Facts of the Case:

This appeal was filed by the Appellant Bank, which is a statutory body incorporated and constituted under the State Bank of India Act, 1955. The Respondent, Ajai Kumar Srivastav, joined as clerk Mumford Ganj Branch Allahabad. While, on duty, he misappropriated funds, for which he was placed under suspension. 

For the same, a criminal case was filed against him for offences under Sections 420, 467, 471 IPC read with Section 120-B IPC and Section 13(2) read with Section 13(1)(d) of Prevention of Corruption Act, 1988. The Respondent was held guilty and convicted by the Court of Special Judge, CBI Court No.1, Lucknow, and sentenced to 10 years imprisonment with a fine. 

The report of the inquiry was furnished by the inquiry officer, holding that Charge No.1 was not proved, whereas, Charge No.2 to 7 was proved true. But, when the disciplinary authority revisited the inquiry report, it agreed with all the findings except the findings recorded concerning Charge No.1. The disciplinary authority giving its reasons, proved Charge No.1 to be true and served a note of disagreement along with an inquiry report to Respondent calling for written explanations. 

The reply was submitted by the Respondents, but no specific objections were raised. The Respondent was dismissed by service by the Disciplinary Authority based on the inquiry report and reply by the Respondent. The departmental appeal made by the Respondent also affirmed the dismissal. 

This dismissal was challenged in a writ petition before the Allahabad High Court, which held that the non-speaking Order passed by the appellate authority violates natural justice. This Order is the subject matter of challenge before this Court. 

Petitioner’s Argument:

The Counsel submitted that the Respondent was given a fair opportunity of hearing in the course of inquiry and the Respondent never questioned either the procedure of inquiry or the competency of authority, who conducted the inquiry or the conclusion of the inquiry, or the supportive evidence. The Respondents even neither contended that there was a violation of the principle of natural justice. Instead, he was holding that the disciplinary authority passed the non-speaking Order without application of mind lacks merit and is not substantiated from materials on record. 

The inquiry officer had given cogent reasons for proving Charge No. 2 to 7. The disciplinary authority, affording reasonable opportunity of hearing to the Respondent and taking note of his written submissions, upheld its tentative view of affirming the dismissal from service of the Respondents by assigning reasons supported by documents on record. In the given circumstances, the Order of the High Court is unsustainable in law. 

The delinquent Respondent tendered no justification in his written reply to the note of disagreement by the disciplinary authority concerning Charge No.1 not proved by the inquiry officer. Thus, the fair opportunity was afforded to him. 

Taking assistance of State of Orissa and Others vs. Bidyabhushan Mohapatra (1963) and P.D. Agarwal vs. State Bank of India and Others (2006), the Order of dismissal based on findings of Charges No.2 to 7, proved by the inquiry officer and confirmed by the appellate authority, held the Respondent guilty of delinquency in uploading penalty of dismissal and interference by High Court was not justified. 

Respondent’s Argument:

The disciplinary authority failed to examine the record of inquiry independently and rejected the written objections raised by the Respondent and inflicted penalty upon him of dismissal from service by passing a non-speaking Order without application of mind and was rightly interfered by the High Court impugned judgment. 

The disciplinary authority disagreed with the findings of the inquiry officer and should have served the note of disagreement in the first place, calling for an explanation. Only thereafter would it be open for him to examine the inquiry independently and take the decision as per the law and the procedure adopted by the disciplinary authority in holding Respondent guilty under Charge No.1 was not only procedural error but is a great prejudice, which cannot be cured by post-decisional hearing, which was rightly upheld by the High Court. 

Observation by the Court:

The Court observed that the power of judicial review in the matters of disciplinary inquiries, exercised by the appellate authorities, discharged by constitutional Courts under Article 226 or Article 32 or Article 136 of the Constitution of India is limited to correcting errors of law or procedural error leading to manifest injustice or violation of principles of natural justice and is not akin to adjudication of the case on merits, which had been examined in the cases of State of Tamil Nadu vs. T.V. Venugopalan (1994), Government of T.N. and Another vs. A. Rajapandian (1995) and B.C. Chaturvedi vs. Union of India and Others (1995)

When the disciplinary inquiry is conducted against the public servant, the Court must examine and determine: (i) whether the inquiry was held by a competent authority, (ii) whether the rules of natural justice are complied with, (iii) whether the findings or conclusions are based on some evidence and authority has power and jurisdiction to reach a finding of fact or conclusion.

If the inquiry officer is not the disciplinary authority, then the disciplinary authority may or may not agree with the findings. In case of disagreement, the disciplinary had to record the reasons of disagreement and after affording an opportunity of hearing to delinquent, may record his findings, if the evidence on record is sufficient for such exercise or else to remit the case to the inquiry officer for further inquiry. 

There exist no strict rules of inquiry for departmental proceedings. The only requirement of the 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 the finding upholding the gravity of the charge against the delinquent. 

The Constitutional Courts exercising judicial review would not interfere with the finding of the facts arrived at the departmental inquiry proceedings unless there exists malafides or perversity. 

The Order of dismissal, if based only on the findings of Charges No.1 alone, then it would have been possible to declare the Order illegal. However, the finding of guilt recorded by the inquiry officer was regarding Charges No. 2 to 7 and was confirmed by the disciplinary authority and was not liable to have interfered and these findings established the guilt of grave delinquency, which was an apparent error by the High Court while interfering with the Order of penalty of dismissal inflicted upon the Respondent. It is supported by the judgment in the cases of State of Orissa and Others vs. Bidyabhushan Mohapatra (1963), Binny Ltd. vs. Workmen (1972) and Sawarn Singh and Another vs. State of Punjab and Others (1976). 

The Decision of the Court: 

The appeals were allowed, and the impugned judgment of the High Court was set aside with no costs and all pending applications stood disposed of.

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