Can strict rules of evidence be applied to disciplinary proceedings? Here’s what SC says

Supreme Court: The 3-judge bench of NV Ramana, SA Nazeer and Surya Kant, JJ has elaborately discussed the power of the Disciplinary Authority to impose punishment, applicability of rules of evidence and the scope of judicial review in such cases.

Punishment and plea of leniency

The Disciplinary Authority has wide discretion in imposing punishment for a proved delinquency, subject of course to principles of proportionality and fair play. Such requirements emanate from Article 14 itself, which prohibits State authorities from treating varying¬degrees of misdeeds with the same broad stroke. Determination of such proportionality is a function of not only the action or intention of the delinquent but must also factor the financial effect and societal implication of such misconduct.

“Unlike in criminal cases, in matters of disciplinary proceedings Courts only interfere on grounds of proportionality when they find that the punishment awarded is inordinate to a high degree, or if the conscience of the Court itself is shocked.”

Thus, whereas imposition of major penalty (like dismissal, removal, or reduction in rank) would be discriminatory and impermissible for trivial misdeeds; but for grave offences there is a need to send a clear message of deterrence to the society. Charges such as corruption, misappropriation and gross indiscipline are prime examples of the latter category, and ought to be dealt with strictly.

Effect of criminal enquiry on disciplinary proceedings

It is both possible and common in disciplinary matters to establish charges against a delinquent official by preponderance of probabilities and consequently terminate his services. But the same set of evidence may not be sufficient to take away his liberty under our criminal law jurisprudence. Such distinction between standards of proof amongst civil and criminal litigation is deliberate, given the differences in stakes, the power imbalance between the parties and the social costs of an erroneous decision.

“Thus, in a disciplinary enquiry, strict rules of evidence and procedure of a criminal trial are inapplicable, like say, statements made before enquiry officers can be relied upon in certain instances.”

However, while strict rules of evidence are inapplicable to disciplinary proceedings, enquiry officers often put questions to witnesses in such proceedings in order to discover the truth. Indeed, it may be necessary to do such direct questioning in certain circumstances.

Scope of Judicial Review in Service Matters

The Constitutional Courts while exercising their powers of judicial review cannot assume the role of an appellate authority. Their jurisdiction is circumscribed by limits of correcting errors of law, procedural errors leading to manifest injustice or violation of principles of natural justice.

“… judicial review is not analogous to venturing into the merits of a case like an appellate authority.”

Further, where an appellate or reviewing Court/authority comes to a different conclusion, ordinarily the decision under appeal ought not to be disturbed in so far as it remains plausible or is not found ailing with perversity.

[Pravin Kumar v. Union of India, CIVIL APPEAL NO. 6270 of 2012 , decided on 12.09.2020]

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