Compliance of natural justice in disciplinary inquiry necessary. There are no specific statutory rule requiring observance of natural justice-Supreme Court

Compliance of natural justice in disciplinary inquiry necessary-Supreme Court

The Supreme Court in a recent judgment has dwelt upon the compliance of principles of natural justice in a disciplinary inquiry and summarised the emerging points on the subject.

Case Details:
Civil Appeal No. 2265 of 2011
Chamoli District Co-operative Bank Ltd. & Anr. (Appellants) vs. Raghunath Singh & Ors. (Respondents)
Date of Judgment: 17-05-2016

Imprtant Judgments Cited:
Sur Enamel and Stamping Works Pvt. Ltd. v. Their Workmen (1964) 3 SCR 616

State Bank of India Vs. R.K. Jain and Ors., reported in (1972) 4 SCC 304
ECIL v. B. Karunakar (1993) 4 SCC 727
Radhey Shyam Gupta vs. U.P. State 1Agro Industries Corporation Ltd. and Another, (1999) 2 SCC 2

Brief Facts of the Case:
The respondent was working as a Branch Manager at Ghat Branch of the Chamoli District of the Appellant Bank. A chargesheet dated 03-07-1992 was issued to him leveling charges against him. The appellant filed reply denying the charges.  An Inquiry Officer was appointed to conduct the inquiry in the matter and after Inquiry report was submitted, the respondent was placed under suspension. However, no further steps were taken on the inquiry report.

However, a fresh charge sheet was issued on 16.01.1993. The respondent again denied the allegations. Again, District Co-operative Bank Ltd. issued a show cause notice dated 04-05-1993 and the Disciplinary Authority (DC) passed a Resolution dated 11.07.2000 that charges against the respondent proved. Finally, by an order dated 01.02.2002, DC dismissed the respondent employee.

On appeal, the High Court quashed the dismissal order holding that dismissal orders had been passed without holding an inquiry.

Observation of the Supreme Court on compliance of natural justice in domestic/disciplinary inquiry:

The apex Court considered its various judgments delivered earlier on this subject and emphasised the following observations.

  1. The compliance of natural justice in domestic/disciplinary inquiry is necessary.
  2.  there are no specific statutory rule requiring observance of natural justice.
  3. An enquiry cannot be said to have been properly held unless:
    (i) the employee proceeded against has been informed clearly of the charges levelled against him,
    (ii) the witnesses are examined ordinarily in the presence of the employee in respect of the charges,
    (iii) the employee is given a fair opportunity to cross-examine witnesses,
    (iv) he is given a fair opportunity to examine witnesses including himself in his defence if he so wishes on any relevant matter, and
    (v) the inquiry officer records his findings with reasons for the same in his report
  4. an inquiry is vitiated by violation of principles of natural justice or if no reasonable opportunity was provided to the delinquent to place his defence, it cannot be characterized as a proper domestic inquiry held in accordance with the rules of natural justice
  5. If an officer himself sees the misconduct of a workman, it is desirable that the enquiry should be left to be held by some other person who does not claim to be an eye- witness of the impugned incident.
  6. in domestic enquiries, the employer should take steps first to lead evidence against the workman charged, give an opportunity to the workman to cross-examine the said evidence and then should the workman be asked whether he wants to give any explanation about the evidence led against him.
  7. it is not fair in domestic enquiries against industrial employees that at the very commencement of the enquiry, the employee should be closely cross-examined even before any other evidence is led against him.
  8. Where the enquiry officer is other than the disciplinary authority, the disciplinary proceedings break into two stages.
  9. The first stage ends when the disciplinary authority arrives at its conclusions on the basis of the evidence, enquiry officer’s report and the delinquent employee’s reply to it. The second stage begins when the disciplinary authority decides to impose penalty on the basis of its conclusions. If the disciplinary authority decides to drop the disciplinary proceedings, the second stage is not even reached.
  10. the right to show cause against the penalty proposed belongs to the second stage when the disciplinary authority has considered the findings in the report and has come to the conclusion with regard to the guilt of the employee and proposes to award penalty on the basis of its conclusions.
  11. While the right to represent against the findings in the report is part of the reasonable opportunity available during the first stage of the inquiry viz., before the disciplinary authority takes into consideration the findings in the report, the right to show cause against the penalty proposed belongs to the second stage when the disciplinary authority has considered the findings in the report and has come to the conclusion with regard to the guilt of the employee and proposes to award penalty on the basis of its conclusions. The first right is the right to prove innocence. The second right is to plead for either no penalty or a lesser penalty although the conclusion regarding the guilt is accepted.
  12. after the Forty-second Amendment of the Constitution the disciplinary authority has to consider the representation of the employee against the report before it arrives at its conclusion with regard to his guilt or innocence in respect of the charges.
  13. when the enquiry officer is not the disciplinary authority, the delinquent employee has a right to receive a copy of the enquiry officer’s report before the disciplinary authority arrives at its conclusions with regard to the guilt or innocence of the employee with regard to the charges levelled against him.
  14. the purpose of the enquiry is to find out the truth of the allegations with a view to punish him and not merely to gather evidence for a future regular departmental enquiry.
  15. It is well-settled law that the doctrine of principles of natural justice are not embodied rules. It cannot be put in a straitjacket formula. It depends upon the facts and circumstances of each case.

Emerging Points:
The Court summarised the following principles that emerged from its observations:

(i) The enquiries must be conducted bona fide and care must be taken to see that the enquiries do not become empty formalities.

(ii) If an officer is a witness to any of the incidents which is the subject matter of the enquiry or if the enquiry was initiated on a report of an officer, then in all fairness he should not be the Enquiry Officer. If the said position becomes known after the appointment of the Enquiry Officer, during the enquiry, steps should be taken to see that the task of holding an enquiry is assigned to some other officer.

(iii) In an enquiry, the employer/department should take steps first to lead evidence against the workman/delinquent charged and give an opportunity to him to cross-examine the witnesses of the employer. Only thereafter, the workman/delinquent be asked whether he wants to lead any evidence and asked to give any explanation about the evidence led against him.

(iv) On receipt of the enquiry report, before proceeding further, it is incumbent on the part of the disciplinary/punishing authority to supply a copy of the enquiry report and all connected materials relied on by the enquiry officer to enable him to offer his views, if any.

Compliance of natural justice in disciplinary inquiry

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