Mere allegation of bias is not fatal to disciplinary inquiry unless supported by materials: Supreme Court

Supreme Court: The Division Bench comprising of Ajay Rastogi* and Abhay S. Oka, JJ., held that non-supply of demanded documents is not sufficient to challenge a disciplinary inquiry unless it is showed what prejudice has been caused due to non-supply.

Twelve Lakhs Stolen from UCO Bank

The respondent delinquent was an Assistant Manager at UCO Bank when the 10/11-11-1999 when the incident of theft was reported. The respondent being one of the joint custodian of cash was responsible for safety of keys of cash/strong room and failed to take all precautionary steps as being indicated in the guidelines of the Bank and the alleged negligence resulted into theft/loss of cash from the cash safe amounting to 12 lakhs rupees.

Disciplinary Inquiry and Suspension

After affording opportunity of hearing and due compliance of principles of natural justice, the inquiry officer found the respondent guilty.  The disciplinary authority concurred with the findings of the Inquiry Officer and after due compliance of principles of natural justice, inflicted the penalty of dismissal from service with disqualification for future employment. In appeal, the appellate authority modified exonerated the respondent from charges 2 and 5 and modified the decision to the following affect, that the respondent be compulsorily retired, the Basic Pay be reduced by two stages in the time scale of pay for a period of 4 (four) years.

Impugned Judgment

The Single Judge and the Division Bench of the High Court concluded that the conclusion that Mr. Vinod Kumar Khanna was the Branch Manager on the date when the incident had occurred and the joint responsibility was of the Branch Manager and the Assistant Manager (Cash). Since the present respondent delinquent was the Assistant Manager, he could not be held to be responsible for.

Findings and Conclusion

The Bench Opined that factual error was committed by the High Court in passing the impugned judgment as Mr. Vinod Kumar Khanna  was also served with the chargesheet and he too faced departmental inquiry but the allegation against him was that despite being fully aware that the respondent delinquent was the custodian of cash he did not take appropriate steps against the staff who was reportedly keeping overnight safety of the keys of the chest in the Branch itself which was a gross negligence and for his supervisory negligence.

The Bench noted that power of judicial review in the matters of disciplinary actions is well circumscribed by limits of correcting errors of law or procedural errors leading to manifest injustice or violation of principles of natural justice and it is not akin to adjudication of the case on merits as an appellate authority. Therefore, the Bench opined that neither the Single Judge nor the Division Bench of the High Court had taken pains to look into the finding which was recorded by the inquiry officer and appreciated thereafter by the disciplinary/appellate authority.

Therefore, the Bench held that the finding recorded by the High Court was unsustainable and not supported with the report of inquiry available on record. Rejecting the contention of the respondent that the inquiry officer was biased and that caused prejudice to him, the Bench held that merely making allegation of biasness is not sufficient unless supported by the material either during the course of inquiry or before the disciplinary/appellate authority. With regard to the contention that the record demanded by the respondent was not made available to him, the Bench noted that the all the records except the one confidential in nature (which the respondent was permitted to inspect) were made available to the respondent. Further, respondent failed to show what prejudice was caused to him due to non-supply of the document demanded.

In the light of the above, the Bench held that the High Court had exceeded in its jurisdiction while interfering with the disciplinary proceedings and being unsustainable the impugned judgment was set aside.

[UCO Bank v. Krishna Kumar Bhardwaj, 2022 SCC OnLine SC 201, decided on 18-02-2022]


*Judgment by: Justice Ajay Rastogi


Kamini Sharma, Editorial Assistant has put this report together 

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