Rajasthan High Court

Rajasthan High Court: In a batch of writ petitions filed against the final answer key issued by the Rajasthan Public Service Commission (RPSC), concerning the Rajasthan State and Subordinate Services Combined Competitive Examination-2023 (RAS 2023)-Preliminary, a single-judge bench comprising of Sameer Jain,* J., affirmed the correctness of the final answer key dated 20-10-2023, based on the RPSC’s expert evaluation and the limited scope of judicial review in academic matters.

Factual Matrix

In the instant matter, the RPSC issued an advertisement dated 28-06-2023, inviting applications for the RAS 2023. The examination was conducted on 01-10-2023. Following the examination, the RPSC published a model answer key on the same day and invited objections from the candidates. Subsequently, on 20-10-2023, the RPSC released the final answer key along with the results, indicating that some petitioners did not qualify for the RAS 2023 Mains Examination. Aggrieved by the final answer key, the petitioners filed writ petitions challenging its correctness and validity.

Moot Point

  1. Whether the final answer key issued by the RPSC is erroneous and warrants judicial intervention?

  2. Whether the denial of selection to the petitioners based on the final answer key violates their fundamental rights under the Constitution of India?

Parties’ Contentions

The petitioners contended that under Article 226 of the Constitution of India, judicial review is permissible for disputed answer keys if they are demonstrably incorrect. The petitioners stressed on the importance of fairness and correctness in public employment examinations to protect the interests of candidates. The petitioners emphasised on the responsibility of the RPSC in ensuring the accuracy of answer keys to uphold fairness and merit. The petitioners relied on precedents including Kanpur University v. Samir Gupta, (1983) 4 SCC 309, where it was held that candidates should not be penalized for answering according to incorrect answer keys.

However, the respondents contended that the scope of judicial review in administrative decision-making is limited. It was argued that Courts lack the expertise to assess the correctness of answer keys and should defer to the expertise of examination authorities. It was asserted that the RPSC duly considered objections raised by candidates before finalizing the answer key. It was contended that no apparent error exists in the final answer key, as it was prepared after due assessment of objections.

Court’s Observation

The Court noted that the RAS-2023 Examination-Preliminary consists of two subjects: General Knowledge and General Science and approximately 7,00,000 applicants applied for the examination, out of which about 4,57,000 candidates appeared. Only 19,500 candidates were shortlisted for the next round, RAS-2023 Mains Examination. The examination was held on 01-10-2023, and the model answer key was issued on the same day. Objections to the model answer key were invited from candidates until 04-10-2023 and a total of 90 questions were challenged by the candidates. The RPSC referred the objected questions to subject matter experts and prepared the final answer key dated 20-10-2023, based on their report, and the result was also declared on the same date. The Court also noted that out of 569 petitioners, only 93 raised objections against the model answer key within the prescribed timeframe.

  • Scope of Judicial Review under Article 226 of Constitution of India in Examinations for Recruitment in Public Services

The Court asserted that the Supreme Court, in its numerous rulings, has stressed the necessity for courts to exercise restraint in intervening in matters related to academic assessments. The Court has endorsed the view that re-evaluation of answer keys may be permissible under certain circumstances, subject to the rules established for the administration of the examination. The Court acknowledged that only professionals possessing a deep understanding of the subject matter are suited to assess the correctness of answer keys. The Court held that the scope of judicial review is narrow, and court intervention is permissible only after obtaining expert opinions.

  • The ‘Exceptional Circumstance’: When can an interference be made by the Courts?

The Court observed that the court’s intervention is permissible only when it is clearly demonstrated, without any inferential reasoning, that a material error has occurred. The Court reiterated that the court lacks the expertise in academic matters necessary for re-evaluating or scrutinizing answer sheets. Consequently, the courts are urged to presume the correctness of key answers and extend deference to the examination authority’s judgment. The Court referred to Vikesh Kumar Gupta v. State of Rajasthan, (2021) 2 SCC 309, where the Supreme Court highlighted the importance of showing deference to expert committees and cautioned against courts independently assessing the correctness of questions and answers. The Court also stressed the adverse consequences of delayed appointments to public posts resulting from prolonged litigation challenging selections. The Court held that the only exception permitting courts to interfere in disputed answer keys during judicial review under Article 226 of the Constitution of India is when the errors are “palpably and demonstrably erroneous”.

  • The ‘Exceptional Circumstance’: What is palpably and demonstrably erroneous?

The Court referred to Kanpur University (Supra), where the Supreme Court emphasised on the significance of ensuring fairness in examinations affecting the future of numerous students. The Supreme Court stressed that errors in answer keys should not be established through inferential reasoning but must be clearly demonstrated to be wrong. The Court also referred to W.B. Central School Service Commission v. Abdul Halim, (2019) 18 SCC 39, where the Supreme Court emphasised that errors in answer keys should be so apparent that they do not require a process of reasoning to identify.

“…it is abundantly made clear that a disputed question answer shall only be treated as palpably and demonstrably wrong, if it is shown that in order to catch hold of the said error and/or notice the fallaciousness crept therein, one ought not to apply a process of reasoning. Rather, the error should be so apparent, that the same may discernible by a mere glimpse, as opposed to a thoughtful analysis.”

  • Limitations of Courts in Matters of Judicial Review of Answer Keys

The Court reiterated that the court’s role in judicial review is limited to ensuring fairness and regularity in the administrative or statutory process. The Court highlighted the need for an inferential process of reasoning to discern any errors in the answer key. Moreover, the Court underscored the importance of treating all candidates equally and deferring to the expertise of the examination authority. The Court asserted that since the RPSC had duly considered the objections and consulted experts before finalising the answer key, no procedural lapse was found. The Court held that unless an answer key is proven to be clearly wrong, the benefit should go to the examination authority rather than the candidates.

Court’s Decision

The Court analysed the disputed questions and answers, considering the established legal principles regarding judicial review of answer keys and held that the disputed answers could not be deemed “palpably and demonstrably erroneous” without an inferential process of reasoning. The Court dismissed the writ petitions, affirming the validity of the final answer key dated 20.10.2023, issued by the RPSC for the RAS-2023 Examination.

[Prema Ram Patel v. State of Rajasthan, 2024 SCC OnLine Raj 690, order dated 22-03-2024]

*Judgment by Justice Sameer Jain

Advocates who appeared in this case :

Mr. R. N. Mathur, Sr. Advocate with Mr. Shovit Jhajharia, Mr. Ankit Kumar & Mr. Utkarsh Dubey, Mr. Raghu Nandan Sharma, Mr. Nikhil Kumawat with Mr. Abhinav Srivastava, Mr. Ram Pratap Saini with Mr. Aamir Khan & Mr. Gopesh Kumar, Mr. Suresh Khileri, Mr. Vigyan Shah with Mr. Harendra Neel, Mr. Srijan Tiwari, Mr. Ram Mohan Sharma, Ms. Komal Kumari Giri, Mr. Rajaram Choudhary, Mr. Dhoop Singh Poonia, Mr. Tushar Panwar, Mr. Rakesh Prajapt, Ms. Neha Godara, Mr. S. K. Tank, Mr. Ravindra Singh Shekhawat, Mr. A. R. Meena, Mr. R. K. Bairwa, Mr. V. K. Rathore, Mr. H. K. Sharma, Mr. Ajay Choudhary, Counsel for the Petitioners

Mr. S. S. Raghav, AAG, Mr. Yuvraj Samant with Ms. Neha Amola, Mr. Neeraj Meena, Mr. Ashutosh Gupta, IAS, Chief Examination Controller, RPSC, Counsel for the Respondents

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