Benefit conferred on one or a set of people, without legal basis or justification, cannot multiply and be relied upon as a principle of parity: SC

Supreme Court: In a case where some candidates who had applied for the post of Helper/trainee with Tamil Nadu Generation and Distribution Corporation Ltd (TANGEDCO) on the basis of a compromise order directing appointment of 84 persons, arguing that they were similarly situated, the 3-judge bench of UU Lalit, S. Ravindra Bhat* and Bela M. Trivedi, JJ has held that if there has been a benefit or advantage conferred on one or a set of people, without legal basis or justification, that benefit cannot multiply, or be relied upon as a principle of parity or equality.

Factual Background

The advertisement or notification, calling for eligible candidates, to apply for the post of Helper/trainee was issued in 2012. The first round of litigation, as it were, was initiated on the ground that TANGEDCO wrongly denied relaxation of upper age limit (to apply, for the candidates). This grievance was held to be justified; the High Court directed grant of such exemption, which TANGEDCO in turn, complied. When the recruitment process started, TANGEDCO clarified that it would conduct an interview, for which it proposed to grant 15% weightage. Candidates including the present appellants, and respondent applicants, participated. Those eligible, and found to be suitable on a combined assessment of the marks obtained and the viva voce, were appointed.

Some unsuccessful candidates approached the High Court. The single judge rejected their writ petitions. In appeal, Division Bench, by its compromise order dated 14.10.2015, purely based on the compromise terms between the aggrieved candidates and TANGEDCO, directed appointment of 84 persons. The compromise order was not based on the merits, nor based on an independent assessment of the merits of the case.

The present aggrieved candidates and several others sought piggyback on the basis of the compromise order, arguing that they were similarly situated. They approached the High Court, from 2016 onwards. These aggrieved candidates’ petitions were rejected, and their claim for parity was turned down.

Analysis

The Court took note of the fact that the Division Bench, in its compromise order, proceeded to accept the terms proposed by the parties. The court did not examine the merits of the case, and why such proposal was justified in the facts of the case.

The Court explained,

“It is one thing for a public employer, to concede in the course of proceedings, to an argument, which it had hitherto clung to, but was untenable. Fairness demands that public bodies, as model employers, do not pursue untenable submissions. In such cases, a concession, which is based on law, and accords to a just interpretation of the concerned law and/or rules, is sustainable. However, it is altogether another thing for a public employer, whose conduct is questioned, and who has succeeded on the merits of the case before the lower forum (in this case, the single judge) to voluntarily agree, in an unreasoned manner, to a compromise. The harm and deleterious effect of such conduct is to prioritize the claim of those before the court, when it is apparent that a large body of others, waiting with a similar grievance (and some of whom probably have a better or legitimate claim on merits to be appointed) are not parties to the proceedings. In such cases, a compromise is not only unjustified, it is contrary to law and public interest.”

The Court observed that in the present case, there is no question of any finality to the compromise order: it cannot be treated, by any stretch of the imagination, as an order in rem, or as a binding precedent. Also, the candidates did not approach the court in time. They woke up after the compromise order, claiming parity, and filed petitions in the court. Clearly, therefore, they cannot claim any benefit from the compromise order.

The Court said,

“A principle, axiomatic in this country’s constitutional lore is that there is no negative equality. In other words, if there has been a benefit or advantage conferred on one or a set of people, without legal basis or justification, that benefit cannot multiply, or be relied upon as a principle of parity or equality.”

Hence, it was held that the candidates could not claim the benefit of parity; their writ petitions were founded on the compromise order, which cannot be justified in law.

[R. Muthukumar v. The Chairman and Managing Director TANGEDCO, 2022 SCC OnLine SC 151, decided on 07.02.2022]


*Judgment by: Justice S. Ravindra Bhat


Counsels

For appellants: Advocates Gautam Narayan and T.B. Sivakumar

For TANGEDCO: Senior Advocate Joydeep Gupta

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