Can departmental proceedings be initiated for charges including vigilance angle without approval of CVC? SC examines validity of departmental actions

Supreme Court: The Division Bench of Sanjay Kishan Kaul* and Hrishikesh Roy, JJ., addressed the instant appeal against the order of High Court whereby the High Court had quashed the disciplinary actions taken against the respondent and had directed for reinstatement with consequential benefits. The Bench stated,

“…the fairness of the departmental proceedings is obvious on the fact that all charges relating to bribery had been held in favour of the respondent and those charges have been rejected.”

Background

The respondent joined the Department of Posts as Postal Assistant in the year 1991 and earned his promotion to Assistant Superintendent of Posts in 2008, a Group-B Gazetted cadre post. A charge memo was issued to the respondent the Disciplinary Authority, Department of Posts under Rule-14 of the Central Civil Services (Classification, Control and Appeal) Rules, 1965 which enumerated 9 charges. Though, certain charges were related to procedural lapses in discharge of duties while another set of charges dealt with alleged illegal gratification received by way of bribes.

It had been contended by the respondent that since the charges included allegations of bribery and had a vigilance angle, the same could not have been issued without prior approval of the Central Vigilance Officer as mandated by a circular dated 18-01-2005 of the Department of Posts, Ministry of Communication and I.T. The Circular advised that all cases of officers below Group ‘A’ involving vigilance angle should be referred to the Directorate for consideration and advice by the CVO of the relevant department.

The decision of the High Court upholding the memo released by authority was challenged before the Supreme Court. However, since the departmental proceeding against the respondent culminated in an adverse report against him, another memo dated 24-03-2017 was issued. In terms of the 2017 Memo, none of the charges of bribery were made out against the respondent but all charges relating to procedural lapses on the part of the respondent were held to have been proved. The respondent was inflicted with a punishment of compulsory retirement from service with immediate effect. Therefore, the Bench had disposed of the matter with the liberty to the respondent to re-agitate the issue by challenging the order of punishment.

Issue before the Bench

Pursuant to the order of the Supreme Court, the order of punishment was challenged by the respondent before Central Administrative Tribunal on the ground of non-compliance with the Circular. The Tribunal took the view that, since the bribery charges were not proved, the case of the respondent could not be said to be prejudiced by not referring it to the CVO. However, regarding the punishment issue, the Tribunal found that the punishment of compulsory retirement was unduly harsh and shockingly disproportionate considering that none of the bribery charges had been found sustainable. To that extent, the order of the disciplinary authority was set aside with a direction to impose an appropriate minor penalty. In appeal, the High Court had set aside the order of the Tribunal and directed to reinstate the respondent into service with all consequential benefits.

Assessment by the Court

The Bench opined that if procedural safeguards are provided the same should be observed as they prevent any arbitrary exercise of power. In Moni Shankar v. Union of India (2008) 3 SCC 484, it had been stated that, “a departmental instruction cannot totally be ignored”. However, the Bench was of the view that the case of the respondent differed in issue as the plea of the respondent that the action of the appellants was retributive in character, as he had earlier endeavoured to highlight the manipulations in the result of Postal Service Group-B cadre examinations and the legal proceedings that followed there from; the Bench opined that,

“The fairness of the departmental proceedings was obvious on the fact that all charges relating to bribery had been held in favour of the respondent and those charges had been rejected.”

The reliance on the Circular really did not help the case of the respondent inter alia for the reason that it was found that the case did not has a vigilance angle, albeit after conclusion of inquiry. As far as the procedural lapses were concerned, it really showed that there was negligence on the part of the respondent in performing his duties. That being so, it was inappropriate for the High Court to have set aside the result of the proceedings against the respondent by giving him a clean chit on the issue on the ground that the Circular was not being followed. Lastly, while upholding the views taken by the Tribunal on the issue of disproportionality of punishment, the Bench reiterated that the punishment of compulsory retirement was completely disproportionate and harsh; keeping in mind the finding arrived at by the disciplinary authority. The Bench stated, perhaps the charges originally levelled might have persuaded the authority concerned to impose punishment; losing site of the fact that the allegations qua bribery had not been found against the respondent.

Hence, observing that the nature of charges found against the respondent could hardly be one to call for a major penalty, keeping in mind that there was no bribery charge. The Bench stated,

“Anyone can make mistakes. The consequences of mistakes should not be unduly harsh”

The impugned judgment of the High Court was set aside and the order of the Tribunal was restored.

[Union of India v. P. Balasubrahmanayam,  2021 SCC OnLine SC 169, decided on 04-03-2021]


Kamini Sharma, Editorial Assistant has put this report together 

*Judgment by: Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul

Know Thy Judge| Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul

Appearance before the Court by:

For the Appellant: Addl. Solicitor General K.M. Nataraj,

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