Failure to make an enquiry before dismissal or discharge of a workman can be justified by leading evidence before the Labour Court: SC clarifies

Supreme Court: The 3-judge bench of L. Nageswara Rao, Navin Sinha and Indu Malhotra* has set aside the impugned judgment of Uttaranchal High Court, whereby the High Court had set aside the award passed by the Labour Court on the ground that no disciplinary enquiry was held by the School regarding alleged abandonment of service by the respondent.

Background

 The Respondent was initially engaged as an Assistant Teacher in Jai Bharat Junior High School, Haridwar during the period July, 1993 to 21-05-1994, which was an unaided private institution. Subsequently, she worked as a Clerk from 01-07-1994. From 24-05-2005 the School started receiving grants-in-aid from the State, and came to be governed by the Uttaranchal School Education Act, 2006. The Respondent filed a complaint before the School contending that she had worked continuously up to 07-03-2006. It was that her services were illegally retrenched since 01-07-1997 without granting her any hearing, or payment of retrenchment compensation. The school, on the other hand, argued that on account of her continuous absence, the School had to engage another clerk in her place. The Respondent never made any grievance about her alleged termination till 2006, which was made after 9 years only when the School started receiving grants-in-aid from the State and became a Government School. It was further argued that the employment of the respondent was illegal, since the father of the respondent was a member of the Managing Committee, and her mother was the Chairman employed by the School. It was also stated that minimum qualification requirement for teachers was of B.Ed. and Teacher training while the respondent was only 12th passed.

Findings of the Courts Below

Labour Court vide Award dated 22-08-2016 held that the respondent was not entitled to get any relief as there was sufficient evidence adduced by the Management to prove her continued absence from the School since 01-07-1997. However, the said award of the Court was set aside by the High Court on the ground that the respondent had failed to discharge the onus to prove her employment till 08-03-2006. It was only after the School started receiving grants-in-aid, the respondent filed the present application after over 9 years. Hence, the High Court had set aside the Award dated on the sole ground that no disciplinary enquiry was held by the School regarding alleged abandonment of service by the respondent.

 Observation and Decision

The Bench cited Workmen of the Motipur Sugar Factory Private Ltd. v. Motipur Sugar Factory, (1965) 3 SCC 588, wherein, it had been held that, “A defective enquiry stands on the same footing as no enquiry and in either case the tribunal would have jurisdiction to go into the facts and the employer would have to satisfy the tribunal that on facts the order of dismissal or discharge was proper.”

Reliance was also placed on Workmen of Firestone Tyre & Rubber Co. of India (P) Ltd. v. Management of Firestone Tyre & Rubber Co. of India (P) Ltd., (1973) 1 SCC 813, wherein the Court had made following observations:

  • Even if no enquiry had been held by an employer or if the enquiry held by him is found to be defective, the Tribunal in order to satisfy itself about the legality and validity of the order; had to give an opportunity to the employer and employee to adduce evidence before it. It is open to the employer to adduce evidence for the first time justifying his action, and it is open to the employee to adduce evidence contra.
  • The effect of an employer not holding an enquiry is that the Tribunal would not have to consider only whether there was a prima facie case. On the other hand, the issue about the merits of the impugned order of dismissal or discharge is at large before the Tribunal, on the evidence adduced before it, has to decide for itself whether the misconduct alleged is proved. A case of defective enquiry stands on the same footing as no enquiry.
  • It has never been recognised that the Tribunal should straightaway, without anything more, direct reinstatement of a dismissed or discharged employee, once it is found that no domestic enquiry has been held or the said enquiry is found to be defective.
  • It has to be remembered that a Tribunal may hold that the punishment is not justified because the misconduct alleged and found proved is such that it does not warrant dismissal or discharge. The Tribunal may also hold that the order of discharge or dismissal is not justified because the alleged misconduct itself is not established by the evidence. Section 11-A now gives full power to the Tribunal to go into the evidence and satisfy itself on both these points.

The Court observed that full opportunity was given to the parties to lead evidence to substantiate their respective case and the High Court had not even adverted to the said evidence, and had disposed of the case on the sole ground that the School had not conducted a disciplinary enquiry before discharging the respondent from service. The School had led sufficient evidence before the Labour Court to prove that the respondent had abandoned her service from 01-07-1997 when she got married, and moved to another District, which was not denied by her in her evidence. The record of the School also revealed that she was not in employment of the School since July 1997.  The Bench stated,

“Only because some documents had not been produced by the management, an adverse inference could not be drawn against it.”

 In the light of above, it was held that initial employment of the respondent as a teacher from July 1993 to 21-05-1994 was itself invalid, since she was only inter-mediate, and did not have B.Ed. degree, which was the minimum qualification to be appointed as a teacher. Therefore, the impugned judgment of the High Court was set aside and the award passed by the Labour Court was restored. [State of Uttarakhand v. Sureshwati, 2021 SCC OnLine SC 34, decided on 20-01-2021]


*Justice Indu Malhotra has penned this judgment.


Kamini Sharma, Editorial Assistant has put this story together

3 comments

Join the discussion

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.