karnataka high court

Karnataka High Court: While considering the instant petition wherein the petitioner questioned an order dated 03-01-2022 passed by United India Insurance Company Limited declining to accede to his request for engaging the services of a Legal Practitioner to defend him in the departmental enquiry; the bench of M. Nagaprasanna, J.*, declared the petitioner entitled to be defended by an advocate in the departmental enquiry stating that he would face serious civil and pecuniary consequences in the event the enquiry would go against him. The Court stated that an employee, at the age of 63, who is to face a departmental enquiry along with the criminal trial becomes “tongue tied” and therefore he would require the assistance of a Legal Practitioner, an hexagenerian cannot be left tongue tied”

Background: The petitioner was an employee of the United India Insurance Company Limited. He joined the service of the Company on 14-10-1982 as Development Officer and was serving as a Divisional Manager at the relevant point in time. When the petitioner was in the cadre of Divisional Manager, he was to retire on attaining the age of superannuation on 31-03-2021. However, two proceedings emerged prior to his retirement, one registration of a crime for offences punishable under Sections 197, 209, 120B, 420, 109, 468, 471, 465, 464 r/w 34 of IPC. Investigation in the said case was pending and at that point in time, charge sheet was issued against the petitioner for conduct of a departmental enquiry on the same set of facts. The charge alleged against the petitioner was that he had, in violation of Company guidelines, settled several matters in a Mega Lokadalat.

In the Departmental Enquiry, the petitioner submitted a representation on placing a request to engage the services of a Legal Practitioner. This was turned down on the very same day, on the ground that the Rules do not permit to engage the services of an Advocate in the Departmental enquiry to defend a delinquent/Charge Sheeted Officer (CSO)

Contentions: The petitioner’s counsel contended that that the petitioner has hearing disability; he is aged 64 years and is facing criminal proceedings on the same charge, which is why he requested the services of a Legal Practitioner. It was submitted that the petitioner is entitled in the peculiar facts of the case, to engage the services of an Advocate to defend him in the enquiry.

Per contra, the respondents contended that Courts have consistently held that right of a CSO to engage the services of a Legal Practitioner shall be only in accordance with the Rules; if there are no Rules, there can be no assistance.

Court’s Assessment: Perusing the facts and contentions raised in the matter, the Court took into consideration the petitioner’s advanced age and his hearing disability. The Court also took note of Rule 25(6) of United India Insurance Company (Conduct, Discipline and Appeal) Rules, 2014.

The Court noted that Rule 25(6) directs that an employee who is facing disciplinary proceedings may engage the services of any other employee of the Company, but may not engage a Legal Practitioner for the purpose.

The Court further pointed out the Rule states that in case the Presenting Officer is a Legal Practitioner, the employee derives a right to be defended by an Advocate. The language of the rule is that the employee may not engage the Legal Practitioner for the purpose. Therefore, the provision though in the first blush would look mandatory, it is not that it is inflexible, it has to be interpreted on a case-to-case basis. The Court was of considered view that the Rule does not place an unambiguous embargo for engaging an Advocate as a Defence Assistant.

Considering the circumstances in which the petitioner had made the request, the Court noted that petitioner suffers certain amount of hearing disability; he is a hexagenerian; his entire retirement benefits are withheld; he is facing two proceedings; both criminal and the impugned departmental proceeding. If all these circumstances are taken note of, including the fact that there is no co-employee who is coming forward to defend the petitioner, since he is already retired from service, they would all become factors to be taken note of for permitting engagement of a Legal Practitioner to defend the petitioner in the enquiry. “Though it would not be, or cannot be permitted, as a matter of course, the course will have to be adopted on fact-to-fact basis/case to case basis”.

The Court also applied the Supreme Court decision of Ramesh Chandra v. Delhi University, (2015) 5 SCC 549, and many other precedents wherein an employee facing department enquiry was permitted to be defended by an Advocate, on the score that the Enquiry Officer in an enquiry would generally be a legally trained mind.

The Court further noted that the petitioner has already been driven to penury by withholding of all terminal benefits. Therefore, given the peculiar facts of the case, the Court permitted the petitioner to be defended by an Advocate in the departmental enquiry.

[T. Ramesh Babu v. Inquiry Authority, 2023 SCC OnLine Kar 55, decided on 21-08-2023]

*Order by Justice M. Nagaprasanna

Advocates who appeared in this case :

Vittal S Teli, counsel appearing for petitioner.

Arun L Neelopant and K.S. Jadhav, representing the respondent No.1 and N.R. Kuppellur, learned counsel for respondent Nos.3 and 4.

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