“No case for interference either on law or on moral grounds”; SC sets aside HC order for applying test of criminal proceedings to departmental proceedings

Supreme Court: Addressing a case of dismissal of a Bank clerk for breaching the trust of a widowed sister-in-law as well as of the bank, the Division Bench of Sanjay Kishan Kaul* and M.M. Sundresh, JJ., held that it was hardly a case for interference either on law or on moral grounds. The Court opined,

“The High Court had applied the test of criminal proceedings to departmental proceedings while traversing the path of requirement of a hand writing expert to be called for the said purpose.”

Backdrop

The dispute in the instant case was with regard to departmental proceedings made by the Indian Overseas Bank against the respondent employee and declaring him guilty on various counts inter alia including breach of duty as a custodian of public money and dishonesty, fraud or manipulation of documents.

The respondent was employed with the appellant-Bank as a clerk cum-cashier. It was on a complaint from the sister-in-law of the respondent, Smt. Meera Srivastava, complainant herein, that the respondent had opened and operated a savings account in the joint name of the respondent and his sister-in-law by forging her signatures, and encashed a demand draft of Rs. 20,000 which was issued to her by Kalyan Nigam Ltd., employer of her deceased husband, who passed away in a road accident, that the departmental proceedings were initiated against the respondent and he was placed under suspension and later on, on charges being proved against him he was dismissed from service.

Award by the Industrial Tribunal

The Industrial Tribunal decided the preliminary issue against the Bank as the Management/Bank had failed to produce original documents and most photocopies of the relevant pages were not readable. It was, thus, concluded that there was violation of the principles of natural justice. However, the Tribunal allowed the Bank to prove the charges against the respondent by adducing evidence. Consequently, the Tribunal opined that the Bank/Management had been successful in establishing all the charges against the respondent. On the issue of quantum of punishment also it was held that the same was commensurate to the charges levelled and proved against the respondent.

Findings of the High Court

However, by the impugned judgment the High Court had held that when the earlier departmental proceedings were found to be violative of the principles of natural justice then no findings vis-a-vis charges 1, 2, 3, 6 & 7 should have been arrived at, based on the plea that the Bank led evidence only in respect of charges 4 & 5. In respect of charges 4 & 5 it was opined that on the request of the respondent the signatures of the complainant should have been got compared with her admitted signatures by an expert and then only a correct conclusion could have been arrived at whether the signatures on the account opening form or the withdrawal form had been forged by the respondent or not and the Tribunal should have refrained from acting like an expert. The High Court held that degree of investigation should have been a standard which is resorted to by a criminal court.

Factual Analysis

Noticeably, while observing the admitted signatures in comparison with the signatures in question from a banker’s eye, the inquiry officer had opined that it could be said that there was absence of similarity. The stand of the complainant was that even the account was opened fraudulently without her ever visiting the bank. Considering that in her cross-examination it was never put to the complainant that she had gone to the Bank to open the account and the account opening form bears her signatures nor was it put to her that she had gone to the Bank to withdraw the amounts of Rs.7,000 and Rs.13,000, the Bench opined,

“We are of the view that the High Court has fallen into an error in coming to the conclusion in the impugned judgment and directing, once again, the matter to be remitted to the Industrial Tribunal to now seek opinion of a hand writing expert.”

The Bench emphasised that at the threshold that there are certain inherent legal limitations to the scrutiny of an award of a Tribunal by the High Court while exercising jurisdiction under Article 226 of the Constitution. Referring to GE Power India Ltd. v. A. Aziz, 2020 SCC Online SC 782, the Bench stated, “if there is no jurisdictional error or violation of natural justice or error of law apparent on the face of the record, there is no occasion for the High Court to get into the merits of the controversy as an appellate court.” That too, on the aspect of an opinion formed in respect of two sets of signatures where the inquiry was held by an officer of the bank who came to an opinion on a bare comparison of the signatures that there was a difference in the same.

Further, the Inquiry Officer had opined while observing the admitted signatures in comparison with the signatures in question, it was not just the ipse dixit of the Inquiry Officer but was based on the deposition of the complainant. She unfortunately lost her husband in an accident. Observing the sorry state of situation, the Bench remarked,

“She unfortunately lost her husband in an accident. The two drafts were received from his employer and those drafts were kept in custody with the respondent, possibly because he was a banker and the elder brother of her deceased husband. Instead of extending the benefits of the same to her, the respondent went on a path of opening an account jointly in his and his sister-in-law’s name, presenting the drafts, and drawing the amounts with appropriation of the same to himself.”

Findings and Conclusion

Referring to a recent judgment in Ashoo Surendranath Tewari v. CBI, (2020) 9 SCC 636, where it had been observed that the standard of proof in departmental proceedings, being based on preponderance of probability, is somewhat lower than the standard of proof in criminal proceedings where the case has to be proved beyond reasonable doubt, the Bench opined that the evidence was enough to implicate the respondent and  the High Court had applied the test of criminal proceedings to departmental proceedings while traversing the path of requirement of a hand writing expert to be called for the said purpose.

With regard to opinion of the High Court that only charges 4 & 5 could really have been gone into by the Industrial Tribunal, which required further evidence of a hand writing expert and that no evidence was led for other charges, the Bench held that view was neither the correct approach nor borne out of the record as, the Bench said,

“Evidence was led. Even earlier, the material in respect of other charges emanates from the record of the bank which shows the conduct of the respondent which are apparent from the manner of framing of the charges themselves and the material led in support thereof. Thus, even the aspect of the other charges could not have been brushed aside in the manner it purports to. “

In the light of above the Bench held that the respondent, a clerk-cum-cashier which was a post of confidence had breached that confidence along with the trust of a widowed sister-in-law, making it hardly a case for interference either on law or on moral grounds. Accordingly, the punishment imposed on the respondent was held to be appropriate as the conduct established of him did not entitle him to continue in service. The impugned judgment was set aside and the challenge to the award of the Industrial Tribunal was repelled.

[Indian Overseas Bank v. Om Prakash Lal Srivastava, 2022 SCC OnLine SC 62, decided on 19-01-2022]


*Judgment by: Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul


Kamini Sharma, Editorial Assistant has put this report together 


Join the discussion

Your email address will not be published.

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