Raj HC | “Over enthusiasm of attaining professional excellence should not stifle the speech of a student”; HC slams ICAI for withholding result of a student for criticizing the Institute

Rajsthan High Court: The Bench of Dinesh Mehta, J., slammed the ICAI for illegally withholding the result of a young girl-student of 21 years of age due to her alleged derogatory e-mail. The Bench remarked,

“The Institute of Chartered Accountants of India is a statutory body. Hence, its decisions, actions and adjudication are supposed to conform to the standards expected of State. A State that suppresses freedom of speech and inflicts or imposes extreme punishment treating an act or attempt of criticism and/or if it treats any suggestion for improvement as a challenge to its authority or supremacy is a State, that disregards rather violates fundamental rights of a citizens guaranteed by Article 19(1)(a) of our Constitution.”

Factual Fulcrum of the Case

On account of unprecedented situation of spread of Covid-19 and imposition of lock-down, the exams due in May, 2020 were cancelled by the ICAI and were re-scheduled to be conducted between 21-11-2020 to 14-12-2020. Owing to the said rescheduling, the Institute gave an option to all those candidates to either appear in the examinations to be held in November, 2020 or opt-out of examinations with a liberty to appear in subsequent examinations in January, 2021.

On 20-11-2020, the petitioner chose to address an e-mail to the office bearers of the Institute. In the said e-mail, the petitioner highlighted the situation of spread of Covid-19 and cautioned that if the examinations were held, it would lead to exponential growth in number of Covid cases. The thrust of her e-mail was only to suggest that online infrastructure be developed so that all levels of CA Examinations be conducted online. Evidently, the petitioner opted out of the November exams and appeared in all the papers/exams held as per above schedule.

On 22-02-2021, as a bolt from the blue, the Dy. Secretary (Examinations) wrote a e-mail informing the petitioner that her result had been put on hold, because of derogatory remarks she had made in her e-mail and an explanation was also sought as to why disciplinary proceedings not be initiated against her for the same. No sooner had the petitioner received the notice than she sent an e-mail expressing her unconditional apology for her inappropriate remarks. Regardless of the aforesaid letter, the institute proceeded to send her a communication with the subject “Alleged resort to unfair means/derogatory remarks during Chartered Accountants Examinations – November 2020.” Consequently, the petitioner appeared before the examination committee and put forth her explanation, but she was kept uninformed about the order/result of the hearing.

Later on, on surfing the official website on the day of result the petitioner found out that her result had been cancelled, under caption “ADOPTED UNFAIR MEANS. LETTER FOLLOWS”. On making a query she was informed by the institute that the Examination Committee had reached a conclusion that she was guilty of making derogatory remarks in the captioned examination and thus, her result had been cancelled.

Findings of the Court

Having waded through the record, the Court opined that not only the initiation of proceedings against the petitioner, but also the manner in which, the proceedings had been conducted so also its culmination in cancellation of petitioner’s result suffered from vices. On the perusal of the contentious e-mail sent by the petitioner, the Court said that the same was addressed to Institute’s President and other office bearers and not to the Examination Committee. Hence, the Examination Committee ought not have taken cognizance of an e-mail. Further, the Bench remarked,

“There is hardly anything in the e-mail, for which it can be alleged/ considered as or even construed to be derogatory. The very initiation of the proceedings against the petitioner alleging that the e-mail contains derogatory remarks was uncalled for and unwarranted. On the contrary, this Court feels that action of the respondents was rather over bearing or high handed.”

Quoting Voltaire, the Bench said, “With great power comes great responsibility”, thus, the Institute which is adorned with enormous power to elevate or uplift the lives of vulnerable & struggling students, is required to practice greater restraint in invoking its powers especially against the students. The Bench added,

One cannot lose sight of the fact that on receipt of the notice dated 22-02-2021 itself, the petitioner had practically knelt down in subservience before respondent No.2 urging that she regretted her action and would not repeat the same in future.”

But for the reasons best known to the Examination Committee, instead of burrying the hatchet, it literally opened a battle-front and summoned the petitioner to Jaipur to defend her cause. Opining it disturbing that the petitioner was personally heard yet no order was ever communicated to her and that her result was cancelled that too, citing “adopted unfair means”; the Bench held that the actions of the institute were without jurisdiction and against the principles of natural justice on one hand and capricious and arbitrary on the other.

Evidently, the Institute had warned the petitioner of dire consequences, if she further indulged in addressing any such communication to ICAI or any other organization concerning examinations.  Indisputably, the petitioner had not written even a single letter to the Institute or to any other authority after 20-11-2020. The respondent-Institute, therefore bound by its own notice was estopped from initiating any action much less disciplinary proceedings. Hence, the Bench held that the impugned proceedings were fundamentally without any basis besides being arbitrary. Since there was no mentioning or even indication of cancellation of result neither in the e-mail dated 22-02-2021 nor in the subsequent communications, there remains not even an iota of doubt that the impugned order of cancelling the result was inherently illegal, falling foul to Article 14 of the Constitution of India and the same was quashed.

Whether the Examination Committee had the jurisdiction to cancel petitioner’s result?

The moot question, required to be decided was whether the Examination Committee had the jurisdiction to cancel petitioner’s result in the present factual matrix.  Regulation 41 of the Regulations of 1988 revealed that the Examination Committee can initiate disciplinary proceedings in connection with the Examination. The language used therein is unequivocal, leaving no room for ambiguity that an action can be taken if a candidate behaves in a disorderly manner in or near an examination hall or has resorted to unfair means. The incidence or the e-mail in question had no nexus or proximity with the examination hall, hence, the proceedings under challenge were void since their inception or very beginning.

The institute’s action of reflecting such mis-information in its official website, in clear contrast with the actual facts is beyond acceptable limits.

The Examination Committee ought to have realized that such casual rather reckless approach involving imputation on reputation may have serious repercussions on emotional or mental equilibrium of a student.”

Verdict

The writ petition was thus, allowed with the cost of litigation quantified at Rs.20,000. On referring the result produced by the institute in a sealed envelope, the Court found out that the petitioner had passed the CA Intermediate Examination. Hence, the ICAI was directed to send original mark sheet and certificate to the petitioner and further, directed the institute to appropriately reflect petitioner’s result on its official portal. Lastly, the Bench warned the ICAI to take criticisms in positive stride, the Court stated,

A professional body like the respondent Institute should introspect and ensure that its over-enthusiasm of attaining professional excellence and endeavors of setting high standards of discipline should not silence rather stifle the speech of a student or its member in the manner that has been done in the present case.”

[Risha Lodha v. ICAI,  2021 SCC OnLine Raj 457, decided on 13-05-2021]


Kamini Sharma, Editorial Assistant has put this report together 

Appearance before the Court by:

For Petitioner(s): Adv. Vikas Balia

For ICAI: Adv. Manoj Bhandari and Adv. Anjay Kothari

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