3 Jun 2023 4:40 AM GMT
The Supreme Court has held that a Constitutional Court, while exercising its power of judicial review, cannot decide the case as if it is the first stage of the case, as if inquiry is still being conducted and inquiry report being prepared. Evidence cannot be reappreciated at the stage of judicial review in a disciplinary proceeding as if conviction in a criminal trial is being re-examined by...
The Supreme Court has held that a Constitutional Court, while exercising its power of judicial review, cannot decide the case as if it is the first stage of the case, as if inquiry is still being conducted and inquiry report being prepared. Evidence cannot be reappreciated at the stage of judicial review in a disciplinary proceeding as if conviction in a criminal trial is being re-examined by the next higher court.
The Bench comprising of Justice Abhay S. Oka and Justice Rajesh Bindal, while adjudicating an appeal The Indian Oil Corporation & Ors. v Ajit Kumar Singh & Anr., has set aside an order passed by High Court whereby the punishment inflicted upon an employee in departmental proceedings was set aside by the High Court by re-appreciating evidence at the stage of intra court appeal. The Bench placed reliance on Deputy General Manager (Appellate Authority) vs. Ajai Kumar Srivastava, (2021) 2 SCC 612, wherein it was held that in judicial review a Constitutional Court can only evaluate the decision-making process and not the merits of the decision itself. It is to ensure fairness in treatment and not to ensure fairness of conclusion.
On 30.06.2001, the Indian Oil Corporation (“Appellant”) issued a tender for repair job of drain and tank inside their Barauni Refinery. The Technical Bids were opened on 24.08.2001. However, the price bids remained closed and were kept in a locked drawer. The keys were in custody of two employees of Appellant, i.e. K.C. Patel and Ajit Kumar Singh (Respondent No. 1).
While being locked inside drawer, the Price bids were tampered with by changing the bid amount of one of the bidders. The tampered bid document contained the signature of Respondent No. 1. The inquiry report submitted by the Central Forensic Institute proved that the tampering was done. Accordingly, a chargesheet was issued to Respondent No. 1, to explain as to why departmental inquiry should not be initiated against him.
The inquiry report was forwarded to the Disciplinary Authority. The Respondent No. 1 made a representation against the Inquiry Report. On 07.08.2003, the Disciplinary Authority imposed major penalty of withholding five annual increments with cumulative effect. The appeal filed by Respondent No. 1 before the Appellate Authority was also dismissed.
Following which, the Respondent No.1 filed a writ petition before the High Court, challenging the order of Disciplinary Authority as well as the Appellate Authority. The writ petition was dismissed by the Single Judge and the orders under challenge were upheld. However, in the intra-court appeal, the Division Bench of High Court reversed the order of Single Judge and set aside the punishment imposed on the Respondent No.1.
The Appellant filed an appeal before the Supreme Court against the order passed by Division Bench. It was contended that in disciplinary proceedings the scope of judicial review by the High Court is confined to ascertaining whether the due process in inquiry was followed and whether fair opportunity was accorded to the employee concerned.
It was argued that when the punishment was upheld by Single Judge, the Division Bench could not have reversed the decision by examining evidence in intra-court appeal.
SUPREME COURT VERDICT
Cannot decide the matter in Judicial Review as if it is the first stage of case
The Bench observed that it has not been disputed by the Respondent No. 1 that fair opportunity of hearing was accorded to him at every stage of inquiry. The same finding was given by the Single Judge.
It was noted that the Division Bench of the High Court passed the judgment in a manner as if it was the first stage of the case, as if the inquiry was being conducted and inquiry report was being prepared. This does not come within the scope of judicial review.
Constitutional Court not to re-appreciate evidence in judicial review, as if conviction in a criminal trial is being re-examined by the next higher court
The Bench found that the Division Bench reappreciated the entire evidence as if conviction in a criminal trial was being re-examined by the next higher court.
“If the facts of the case are examined in the light of the settled principles of law in scope of judicial review, we find that the Division Bench of the High Court proceeded to reappreciate the entire evidence as if conviction in a criminal trial was being re-examined by the next higher court.”
While interpreting the scope of judicial review, reliance was placed on the Deputy General Manager (Appellate Authority) vs. Ajai Kumar Srivastava, (2021) 2 SCC 612, wherein it was held that:
“The constitutional court while exercising its jurisdiction of judicial review under Article 226 or Article 136 of the Constitution would not interfere with the findings of fact arrived at in the departmental enquiry proceedings except in a case of mala fides or perversity i.e. where there is no evidence to support a finding or where a finding is such that no man acting reasonably and with objectivity could have arrived at those findings and so long as there is some evidence to support the conclusion arrived at by the departmental authority, the same has to be sustained .”
The Bench observed that though the Respondent No. 1 contended that merely being in possession of duplicate key does not make him liable for tampering, but he has no answer to the finding that the tampered document contained his original signature.
“The fact that this “Form of quotation” was changed is not in dispute. When the changed form of quotation also contained signature of respondent no.1, it clearly established his involvement in the tampering of document….This fact has not even been noticed by the Division Bench of the High Court”, the Bench noted.
The Bench has set aside the judgment of Division Bench and has allowed the appeal. The order passed by the Single Judge has been restored.
Case Title: The Indian Oil Corporation & Ors. v Ajit Kumar Singh & Anr.
Citation: 2023 LiveLaw (SC) 478
Click here to read the judgment