16 Nov 2023 6:04 AM GMT
The Supreme Court recently reiterated that eligibility criteria for a post, as set out in the Rules, could not be relaxed unless the said relaxation was envisioned in the Rules or advertisements for the post. Further, in case of any such relaxation passed, the same had to be widely publicised to be held valid.The batch of appeals concerned the recruitment on the post of Junior Office...
The Supreme Court recently reiterated that eligibility criteria for a post, as set out in the Rules, could not be relaxed unless the said relaxation was envisioned in the Rules or advertisements for the post. Further, in case of any such relaxation passed, the same had to be widely publicised to be held valid.
The batch of appeals concerned the recruitment on the post of Junior Office Assistant (JOA) under the Government of Himachal Pradesh and was heard by a bench comprising Justice Hrishikesh Roy and Justice Manoj Misra. The appeals challenged a judgement of the High Court of Himachal Pradesh which upheld the State Government's action of relaxing essential eligibility qualifications required for the post of JOA as prescribed by Common Recruitment and Promotion Rules, 2014 (2014 Rules) subsequent to the last date fixed for receipt of application from the candidates. The High Court, in its judgement, noted that the original rules which had set the essential eligibility qualifications for the post were unclear and ambiguous. Therefore, it stated that the State Government's "relaxation order" in the recruitment exercise was valid.
The result of this judgement of the High Court was that the candidates who were initially held as ineligible under the original Rules, were to be treated eligible as per the relaxation order and the merit list was to be redrawn accordingly. This would also mean that the candidates who were although lower on merit but otherwise eligible as per the original Rules were ousted from the merit list.
The primary issues raised before the Supreme Court in the appeals challenging the High Court's judgement were–
1. Whether relaxation in the essential eligibility qualifications could be made post the last date fixed for receipt of application from the candidates?
2. Whether candidates holding qualifications other than the one prescribed by the 2014 Rules or the advertisement, though allegedly higher, could be considered eligible?
3. Whether the State (i.e., the employer) could be forced to fill all vacancies advertised; and whether it could be restrained from carrying it forward for filling it as per the amended / new Rules.
The Supreme Court underlined its earlier precedents to reiterate that the eligibility criteria, unless provided otherwise in the extant rules or the advertisement, must be fulfilled by the candidate by the last date for receipt of applications specified in the advertisement. The Court added that the law was settled that if the extant Rules provide for the power to relax the eligibility criteria, the same could be exercised only if such power was reserved in the advertisement. Further, it stated that when such power was exercised, there must be wide publicity of its exercise so that persons who are likely to benefit by exercise of such power may get opportunity to apply and compete. Stating that in the instant case, it was not shown that the advertisement reserved the power to relax the essential eligibility qualifications specified in the advertisement at any later stage and that the decision to relax the eligibility criteria was not widely publicised, the court held that the State was in the wrong. It added–
"Even if we assume that the State had power to relax the eligibility criteria, the same could not have been done mid-stream without giving wide publicity of such change, and opportunity to similarly situated candidates to apply and compete with others."
Answering the second issue, the Supreme Court held that there existed no provision in the extant Rules or the advertisement to treat any other qualification as higher or equivalent to the one specified. Accordingly, the claim of such candidates, who could not demonstrate that they held the prescribed essential qualifications, was held liable to be rejected.
Finally, the Supreme Court noted that it was well settled that an employer could not be forced to fill all the existing vacancies under the old Rules. "The employer may, in a given situation, withdraw an advertisement and issue a fresh advertisement in conformity with the new or amended Rules," the court added.
However, taking into account that the length of period during which the appointments have continued amongst other things, the court clarified that even if certain appointments were made taking aid of the relaxation order, it would not be in the interest of justice to disturb the appointments already made.
Case Title: Ankita Thakur & Ors v The HP Staff Selection Commission | Civil Appeal No 7602 of 2023
Citation : 2023 LiveLaw (SC) 991
Click here to read the judgment