Disciplinary Proceedings

Supreme Court: In an appeal challenging judgment and order passed by the Gauhati High Court on 15-05-2019 setting aside order of penalty of withholding of 50% pension imposed upon the respondent in connection with the disciplinary proceedings initiated following allegations of sexual harassment, the Bench of Dr. Dhananjaya Y. Chandrachud, CJI, J.B. Pardiwala* and Manoj Misra, JJ. set aside the impugned judgment and restored the penalty imposed.

Supreme Court on Sexual Harassment at Workplace

The Bench started with the expression “Sexual harassment in any form at the workplace must be viewed seriously and the harasser should not be allowed to escape from the clutches of law. We say so because the same humiliates and frustrates a victim of sexual harassment, more particularly when the harasser goes unpunished or is let off with a relatively minor penalty. However, at the same time, it should be kept in mind that the charge of this nature is very easy to make and is very difficult to rebut. When a plea is taken of false implication for extraneous reasons, the courts have a duty to make deeper scrutiny of the evidence and decide the acceptability or otherwise of the accusations. Every care should be taken to separate the chaff from the grain. The veracity and genuineness of the complaint should be scrutinised to prevent any misuse of such laudable laws enunciated for the upliftment of the society and for equal rights of people without gender discrimination by anybody under the garb of “sexual harassment”, lest justice rendering system would become a mockery.”

Factual Background

The instant matter pertains to sexual harassment complaint filed by Field Assistant (Lady) against the Local Head of Office of the Service Selection Board on 30-08-2011 wherein, the on-the-spot inquiry report as well as Frontier Complaints Committee’s inquiry report denied direct/indirect teasing and harassments. Another complaint was lodged on 18-09-2012 with additional allegations with few other documents including anonymous complaints made against the respondent in October 2011

The Central Complaints Committee decided to treat the complaint as charge-sheet in the absence of any specific charges framed against the respondent and the inquiry was still pending when the Ministry of Home Affairs annulled the Frontier Level Complaints Committee’s Inquiry Report since its chairperson held a rank equivalent to that of respondent, which violated the statutory provisions. e Standing Order No. 1 of 2006 (Grievances Redressal Mechanism: To Redress Grievances of Women/Sexual Harassment at Workplace) whose Clause 9 mandates the chairperson to be senior in rank to that of delinquent/charged officer. The Central Complaints Committee’s inquiry report dated 28-12-2012 found the charges against the respondent to be proved, which led the Ministry of Home Affairs to pass an order imposing a penalty as part of disciplinary proceedings.

During pendency of such disciplinary proceedings, the respondent superannuated on 31-03-2013 as Dy. IG, Frontier Headquarters, SSB and was granted provisional pension without retirement gratuity.

Respondent’s Version

It was alleged by the respondent that the complainant woman’s transfer request was rejected after which he received a threat message from someone alleging to be one of his lady staff’s husband, indicating the complainant’s grudge, and the first information report (‘FIR’) in connection with the threats administered to him by way of a telephonic message.

Trajectory of Impugned Judgment

The Central Administrative Tribunal questioned the constitution of Frontier Complaints Committee as against the 2006 Standing Order and refrained from commenting on Central Complaints Committee’s Inquiry thereby directed expeditious completion of disciplinary proceedings within 4 months. The same was challenged before the High Court and meanwhile, the Ministry of Home Affairs found the charges of sexual harassment levelled against the respondent to be duly proved and imposed a penalty of withholding 50% of the monthly pension on permanent basis vide order dated 5-01-2016. The High Court in the impugned judgment set aside the penalty so imposed, and the same was challenged in the instant matter.

Court’s Analysis

The Court started with expressing that “Sexual harassment is a pervasive and deeply rooted issue that has plagued the societies worldwide. In India, it has been a matter of serious concern, and the development of laws to combat sexual harassment is a testament to the nation’s commitment towards addressing this problem” and cited Vishaka v. State of Rajasthan, (1997) 6 SCC 241, a case which led to recognition of sexual harassment at the workplace a violation of woman’s fundamental right to equality and dignity paving way for specific guidelines in this regard. The same was followed in Medha Kotwal Lele v. Union of India, (2013) 1 SCC 297 when the Court issued writ of continuing mandamus to ensure compliance of Vishaka guidelines.

Coming back to the instant case, the Court perused relevant provisions of Central Civil Services (Conduct) Rules, 1964, Central Civil Services (Classification, Control and Appeal) Rules, 1965 in context with sexual harassment of working women and disciplinary proceedings, and the 2006 Standing Orders. The Court expressed that “It is well settled that when it comes to disciplinary proceedings, it is the inquiry authority and the disciplinary authority who could be said to be the fact- finding authority and the courts in exercise of their powers of judicial review should not sit in appeal and reappreciate the evidence or substitute its own findings” and cited Apparel Export Promotion Council v. A.K. Chopra, (1999) 1 SCC 759 for the manner in which the Court ought to exercise its powers of judicial review in disciplinary proceedings, particularly those pertaining to sexual harassment.

Regarding the scope of inquiry into subsequent complaints for Committee constituted based on first complaint, the Court found the High Court’s finding of the same being restricted to first complaint as erroneous with reference to State of Haryana v. Rattan Singh, (1977) 2 SCC 491. The Court clarified that there was no legal bar on the Central Complaints Committee to look into the allegations levelled in the second complaint. It further added that “Since strict and technical rule of evidence and procedure does not apply to departmental enquiry the connotation “evidence” cannot be understood in a narrow technical sense as to include only that evidence adduced in a regular court of law when a person is examined as a witness by administering oath. There should not be any allergy to “hearsay evidence” provided it has reasonable nexus and credibility.”

The Court relied on Apparel Export Promotion Council (supra) wherein it was held that “in sensitive matters such as sexual harassment & misconduct, there is an obligation to look into the entire evidence of the complainant that inspires confidence.” The Court analysed the ‘test of prejudice’ in service jurisprudence through State Bank of Patiala v. S.K. Sharma, (1996) 3 SCC 364 and State of U.P. v. Harendra Arora, (2001) 6 SCC 392. Regarding the respondent not pleading guilty to the charges, the Court held that Rule 14(9) of 1965 CCS Rules was only procedural and opined that violation of Rule 14(9) of the 1965 CCS Rules would not vitiate the entire inquiry. The scope of putting questions by the presiding officer was also discussed in detail to be allowed being an inquiry authority for ensuring a fair and thorough inquiry.

For instant case being projected as a case of ‘no evidence’ and the standard of proof in disciplinary proceedings, the Court referred to a catena of cases and then went on to the witness statements in the instant matter to hold that it was not a case of ‘no evidence’, as ignored by the High Court. However, the Court agreed with the High Court’s findings as against multiple inquiries.

The Court allowed the instant appeal while setting aside the impugned judgment and order dated 15-05-2019 and restoring the penalty imposed by the Disciplinary Authority.

[Union Of India v. Dilip Paul, 2023 SCC OnLine SC 1423, decided on 6-11-2023]

Judgment authored by: Justice J.B. Pardiwala

Know Thy Judge | Supreme Court of India: Justice J.B. Pardiwala

Advocates who appeared in this case :

For Appellant: Advocate on Record Arvind Kumar Sharma

For Respondent: Advocate on Record Avijit Roy

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