In Union of India & Ors v Dilip Paul (Civil Appeal No 6190 of 2023), decided on 6th November 2023, the Supreme Court (SC) bench comprising of CJI DY Chandrachud, Justice JB Pardiwala, and Justice Manoj Misra emphasized that courts should not be influenced by minor discrepancies and overly technical procedural issues. Instead, they should evaluate the impact of any procedural irregularity in the context of the inquiry’s overall fairness.
An appeal was filed before SC by the Union of India and others, who were unsuccessful Respondents in the matter (Writ Petition (C) No. 7876 of 2015) before the Gauhati High Court dated 15.05.2019. In that judgment, the High Court allowed the writ petition filed by the Petitioner (original Respondent) (henceforth “Respondent”) and overturned the penalty of withholding 50% of his pension for an indefinite period. This penalty had been imposed on him as a result of disciplinary proceedings initiated on allegations of sexual harassment.
The Respondent was serving as the Area Organizer at Service Selection Board, Rangia, State of Assam. The Original Complainant was serving as a Field Assistant. She alleged that the Respondent used to tease her, make phone calls at night using unofficial and multi-meaning words. She alleged that he went to the extent of visiting her residence where she stayed alone with her two children. He used to call her to his room, made sexually coloured remark and unnecessarily made her sit there for hours. On 30th August 2011, she lodged a complaint to the Inspector General Frontier Headquarters, Guwahati and also forwarded the copy to the DG SSB, New Delhi, Dy. IG, SSB, SHQ, Tezpur and the Chairperson of the National Women Rights Commission, New Delhi alleging sexual harassment at the hands of the Respondent. On September 18, 2012, the Complainant also submitted a second complaint containing additional allegations against the Respondent.
Initial inquiries by a fact-finding, and a Frontier Complaints Committee inquiry, failed to prove the allegations. The Ministry of Home Affairs then formed the Central Complaints Committee (CCC) as administrative regulations. The Respondent argued the allegations were false, citing a personal motive by the Complainant. CCC found the Respondent guilty of sexual harassment. The Respondent approached the Central Administrative Tribunal (CAT) and he requested the termination of the inquiry conducted by the CCC, the CAT abstained from forming an opinion on the issue due to the ongoing disciplinary proceedings by CCC. The matter reached High Court of Guwahati and it ruled that the CCC exceeded its authority by handling the second complaint and acting like a prosecutor. The HC ruled that the CCC’s jurisdiction was confined to the first complaint and criticized its findings as speculative. The case was then appealed to the SC.
- The Appellants argued that there was no violation of the principles of natural justice in the case. The Respondent had ample opportunities to defend himself throughout the proceedings. Citing State of U.P. v. Sudhir Kumar Singh(2020 SCC OnLine SC 847), it is contended that minor flaws do not invalidate the entire process unless actual prejudice was demonstrated. In this case, the Appellant was given not only a hearing but an adequate and fair one before the penalty of withholding 50% of his pension was imposed.
- The Appellants asserted that the Respondent was not prejudiced by the non-supply of reports from on-spot inquiries of the Frontier Level Complaint Committee. They argued that the first inquiry was summary in nature and cannot be equated with a disciplinary investigation. Even if the FLCC reports did not find allegations against the Respondent, they were annulled, and a new committee was formed as per the rules, in accordance with the principles established in the Vishaka & Ors. v State of Rajasthan & Ors ((1997) 6 SCC 241).
- The Appellants contended that the punishment imposed on the Respondent is proportionate to the offense committed. They argued that judicial review in misconduct and penalty cases is limited to ensuring a fair inquiry process and not the decision itself. They referred to Aureliano Fernandes vs State of Goa (2023 SCC OnLine SC 621) which emphasizes the importance of upholding fair proceedings. The Respondent, a senior officer, engaged in continuous harassment despite warnings and superannuated during the proceedings, making the imposed penalty of withholding 50% of their pension proportionate to the offense.
- The scope of judicial review in cases of misconduct and penalty imposition is limited to ensuring charges are established based on a fair inquiry. This principle was in line with the decision in Vijay Shankar Pandey v. U.O.I. (2014) 10 SCC 589, which emphasizes the need for a single inquiry, with limited exceptions.
- Rule 15 of the CCS (CCA) Rules, 1965 restricts the holding of a second inquiry. In this case, despite the Respondent’s exoneration in three successive inquiries, a fourth inquiry was initiated. The decisions in K.R. Deb v. The Controller, Central Excise, Shillong (1971 (2) SCC 102) and U.O.I. v. Shri K.D. Pandey & Ors (2002 (10) SCC 471) reinforce the impermissibility of a second inquiry.
- The correctness of the conclusion in the inquiry report determines the legality of the findings, not technical flaws. The Central Complaint Committee (CCC) expanded the allegations from two to ten without proper basis, and this action exceeded its jurisdiction under CCS (CCA) Rules, 1965.
- The CCC considered a complaint submitted on 18.09.2012, which was beyond the scope of the disciplinary proceedings. The High Court rightly pointed out this procedural error. The CCC acted as a prosecutor, as evident from its examination of prosecution witnesses. Its findings were based on surmises and conjectures, rather than evidence on record.
- The Respondent’s exemplary service and previous exoneration in three inquiries demonstrate his innocence. The punishment of withholding 50% of his pension is unjustified.
- In disciplinary proceedings, the role of the court is limited to reviewing the decision-making process and the fairness of the inquiry procedure, as stated in B.C. Chaturvedi v. Union of India & Ors. (1995) 6 SCC 749. When reviewing disciplinary matters, especially those involving sexual harassment, courts should not focus on insignificant discrepancies or technicalities. Courts must consider the entire case and rely on complainants’ evidence if it inspires confidence, as outlined in Apparel Export Promotion Council v. A.K. Chopra (1999) 1 SCC 759 and Union of India and Others v. Mudrika Singh (2021 SCC OnLine SC 1173).
- Therefore, the High Court correctly pointed out that the scope of inquiry by the CCC is not restricted to the content of the initial complaint, as it is empowered by the 2006 Standing Order. Furthermore, the 2006 Standing Order allows for the filing of subsequent or additional complaints, subject to certain conditions.
- In disciplinary proceedings, including those related to sexual harassment, the adjudicating authority has the discretion to accept and evaluate any evidence with probative value, as long as fair opportunity is provided to the accused.
- The doctrine of the “test of prejudice” is a well-established principle that should be applied when procedural improprieties or violations of audi alteram partem (right to be heard) are alleged. The critical aspect is to determine whether such violations resulted in prejudice or the denial of a fair hearing, as per the judgment in State Bank of Patiala and Others v. S.K. Sharma (1996) 3 SCC 364. Similarly in Managing Director, ECIL, Hyderabad and Ors v. B. Karunakar and Ors (1993) 4 SCC 727, it held that to assess whether prejudice has resulted from a breach of a procedural rule or a facet of natural justice, it must be demonstrated that the violation had some relevance either to the final decision or the penalty imposed.
- The SC also examined the principles surrounding the “No Evidence” principle in service jurisprudence. This principle establishes that findings of fact from a domestic inquiry are generally exempt from judicial review unless they are collateral or jurisdictional in nature. The High Court , in its writ jurisdiction, should not have acted as an appellate authority reviewing the merits of the ultimate decision based on these findings. Two exceptions to this rule are, first, the case should not involve “no evidence” supporting the findings, and second, the ultimate decision based on these findings should not be perverse or unreasonable. This principle was highlighted in French Kier Developments Ltd. v. Secretary of State for the Environment ((1977) 1 All ELR 297). The Court in this case emphasized that while legal rules of evidence do not apply in departmental inquiries, there should still be limits on the admission of evidence that lacks any probative value. The importance of basing decisions on evidence was reiterated in Union of India v. H.C. Goel (AIR 1964 SC 364), where it was clarified that decisions must be grounded in material with some probative value and that the adequacy or reliability of this evidence is not a matter for the High Court to consider in its writ jurisdiction.
- The principle that a disciplinary inquiry’s standard of proof is based on the preponderance of probabilities, rather than beyond a reasonable doubt, was established in West Bokaro Colliery (TISCO Ltd.) v. Ram Pravesh Singh ((2008) 3 SCC 729). The SC also relied on R. Mahalingam v. Chairman, Tamil Nadu Public Service Commission (2013) 14 SCC 379 where it was emphasized that the court should only intervene if the decision is wholly disproportionate to the misconduct or shocks the conscience.
The SC allowed the appeal. It stated that the High Court committed an egregious error in passing the impugned judgment and it set-aside the HC’s order. The order of penalty imposed by the Disciplinary Authority on the Respondent was restored. However, the Appellant was ordered not to recover any amount already paid to the Respondent so far.
By Deeksha Rai