Supreme Court: The bench of Dr. DY Chandrachud and Indira Banerjee, JJ has held that the conclusion of the criminal trial does not conclude the disciplinary enquiry.
Background of the case
A police constable, who was tried and acquitted in a murder case, had challenged his dismissal from service after a disciplinary enquiry. The Division Bench of the Rajasthan High Court granted the respondent reinstatement in service with no back wages for the seventeen years that elapsed since his termination. The State had, hence, challenged the reinstatement before the Supreme Court.
- On 13 August 2002, the respondent proceeded on leave and had to report back on duty on 16 August 2002. He failed to do so and eventually reported for work on 19 August 2020.
- On 15 August 2002, one Daulat Singh lodged a written complaint in relation to the death of his brother Bhanwar Singh, caused by an accident with an unknown vehicle. However, it appeared during the course of the investigation that the death was homicidal. The respondent, along with 2 co-accused was arrested on 9 September 2002.
- The respondent was tried for the offence of murder and was acquitted by the Sessions Court on 8 October 2003.
- Departmental proceedings were also initiated against the respondent wherein the charges that were leveled against the respondent were:
- Over-staying leave by a period of three days beyond the leave that was sanctioned;
- Not seeking an extension of leave from the superior officer;
- Involvement in the murder of Bhanwar Singh (the respondent was alleged to have run away from the scene of offence and tried to give it the colour of an accident);
- Getting additional leave sanctioned by suppressing the correct reason on a misrepresentation to the superior officer; and
- Conduct which has hurt the image of the police department.
- In the finding of the Disciplinary enquiry it was noticed that the Court had not completely acquitted the said constable rather acquitted by giving him the benefit of doubt.
“From this it is clear that the Hon’ble Court has not acquitted charged constable in free form. Thus, I found said charge as completely proved due to which the image of police has blurred.”
What the Supreme Court said
On effect of acquittal in criminal trial on disciplinary proceedings
Though the acquittal brought finality to the question as to whether he had committed the offence of murder punishable under the Penal Code, however, the disciplinary enquiry stood on a broader footing. The disciplinary proceedings related not merely to the involvement of the respondent in the murder, but to the violation of service rules and the impact of his conduct on the image of the police force. Hence, the verdict of the criminal trial did not conclude the disciplinary enquiry.
Noticing that the disciplinary enquiry was not governed by proof beyond reasonable doubt or by the rules of evidence which governed the criminal trial, the Court said,
“True, even on the more relaxed standard which governs a disciplinary enquiry, evidence of the involvement of the respondent in a conspiracy involving the death of Bhanwar Singh would be difficult to prove. But there are circumstances emerging from the record of the disciplinary proceedings which bring legitimacy to the contention of the State that to reinstate such an employee back in service will erode the credibility of and public confidence in the image of the police force.”
On proof of misconduct in disciplinary proceedings
The standard of standard of proof in disciplinary proceedings is different from that in a criminal trial
In Suresh Pathrella v. Oriental Bank of Commerce, (2006) 10 SCC 572, a two judge Bench differentiated between the standard of proof in disciplinary proceedings and criminal trials in the following terms:
“ …the yardstick and standard of proof in a criminal case is different from the disciplinary proceeding. While the standard of proof in a criminal case is a proof beyond all reasonable doubt, the proof in a departmental proceeding is preponderance of probabilities.”
Further, the involvement of a member of the police service in a heinous crime, if established, has a direct bearing on the confidence of society in the police and in this case, on his ability to serve as a member of the force. Such an individual is engaged by the State as a part of the machinery designed to preserve law and order. The State can legitimately assert that it is entitled to proceed against an employee in the position of the respondent in the exercise of its disciplinary jurisdiction, for a breach of the standard of conduct which is expected of a member of the state police service.
“Confidence of the State in the conduct and behaviour of persons it has appointed to the police is integral to its duty to maintain law and order.”
On judicial review over disciplinary matters
In exercising judicial review in disciplinary matters, there are two ends of the spectrum. The first embodies a rule of restraint. The second defines when interference is permissible.
Rule of restraint:
“The determination of whether a misconduct has been committed lies primarily within the domain of the disciplinary authority. The judge does not assume the mantle of the disciplinary authority. Nor does the judge wear the hat of an employer.”
Deference to a finding of fact by the disciplinary authority is a recognition of the idea that it is the employer who is responsible for the efficient conduct of their service. Disciplinary enquiries have to abide by the rules of natural justice. But they are not governed by strict rules of evidence which apply to judicial proceedings. The standard of proof is hence not the strict standard which governs a criminal trial, of proof beyond reasonable doubt, but a civil standard governed by a preponderance of probabilities. Within the rule of preponderance, there are varying approaches based on context and subject. The first end of the spectrum is founded on deference and autonomy – deference to the position of the disciplinary authority as a fact finding authority and autonomy of the employer in maintaining discipline and efficiency of the service.
Interference when permissible
“The ultimate guide is the exercise of robust common sense without which the judges’ craft is in vain.”
At the other end of the spectrum is the principle that the court has the jurisdiction to interfere when the findings in the enquiry are based on no evidence or when they suffer from perversity. A failure to consider vital evidence is an incident of what the law regards as a perverse determination of fact. Proportionality is an entrenched feature of our jurisprudence. Service jurisprudence has recognized it for long years in allowing for the authority of the court to interfere when the finding or the penalty are disproportionate to the weight of the evidence or misconduct.
Judicial craft lies in maintaining a steady sail between the banks of these two shores which have been termed as the two ends of the spectrum. Judges do not rest with a mere recitation of the hands-off mantra when they exercise judicial review. To determine whether the finding in a disciplinary enquiry is based on some evidence an initial or threshold level of scrutiny is undertaken. That is to satisfy the conscience of the court that there is some evidence to support the charge of misconduct and to guard against perversity. But this does not allow the court to re-appreciate evidentiary findings in a disciplinary enquiry or to substitute a view which appears to the judge to be more appropriate. To do so would offend the first principle i.e. the rule of restraint.
[State of Rajasthan v. Heem Singh, 2020 SCC OnLine SC 886, decided on 29.10.2020]