By Deo Prakash Singh

June 2, 2022

Disciplinary proceedings are the documented rules that define the relationship and control between a master and a servant. The power of the master to exercise control over the servant is to maintain and sustain the working environment at the workplace to achieve the dedicated goal and objectives. It signifies the obligation of the servant to obey and act in accordance with the code of conduct formulated by the master.

Disciplinary action is imposed by the employer on an employee against an act of misconduct  by ordering punishment. The proceedings are perhaps the most vast and litigated branches in India and are full of dilemmas and dogmas. Service matters have the maximum number of commentaries, statutes, rules and regulations. The author here tries to discuss disciplinary proceedings — how they are conducted in public service tribunals, the procedure through which cases filed, and how they are conducted.

The general conception that a government job, in contrast to a private job, is a safe and secure job that ensures uninterrupted pay, perks and other service benefits is a misnomer. The statement may be true to a considerable extent because of the play and importance of natural justice in conducting disciplinary proceedings in public service. But the master in this case is that the mighty state has the capacity to diminish the future prospects of a government delinquent employee. Not only this, in public service the government delinquent employee has no way except to knock the doors of the court which is a time-taking and expensive exercise that sometimes even remains undecided. During the pendency of the litigation the employee may be deprived of service benefits and promotions. It is very difficult to decide between the two — whether justice delayed is justice denied or justice hurried is justice buried. The principle of natural justice sometimes derails from its impregnated objective.

Natural Justice and Disciplinary Proceedings

The principles of natural justice, generally, are taken care of while conducting disciplinary proceedings.

Article 311 of the Constitution of India guarantees the protection of rights of civil servants against arbitrary dismissal, removal and reduction in rank. This protection is not available where the employee has been convicted of a criminal charge or the competent authority is satisfied that compliance with the rules of natural justice is not reasonably practicable or the President or the Governor is satisfied that holding of an enquiry is not expedient in the interest of the security of the state. This is one of the express exceptions referred to in Article 310 and not subject to any control by any other provision of the Constitution. This provision in the Constitution aims at providing security of tenure to a government servant. This shield is a security to the extent of providing certain safeguards which have been made conditions precedent for dismissal or removal or reduction in rank of a government servant.

It is established that the principle of natural justice mainly comprises of following two rules:

(I) no person is to be condemned without hearing

(II) no person shall be a judge of his own cause

These two are the basic features. It means that fairness in conducting the proceedings shall be the essence of practice and the delinquent employee should be treated fairly which may culminate into punishment. The fairness principle requires a tribunal to proceed and hear the aggrieved employee on the points of law and procedure of fairness to protect the rights ensconced in the law book.

Elements of Disciplinary Proceedings

The proceedings are conducted under the domestic jurisdiction of the employer. To hold an enquiry into the misconduct of the employee is the most important feature and a precondition to the imposition of any punishment on a public servant. It is a universal principle and procedure because of the fact that almost all government servants and employees of statutory corporations or government companies are governed by rules which generally provide for a detailed procedure to be followed before imposing any punishment.

A departmental proceeding is a quasi-judicial proceeding and hence the enquiry officer’s performance a quasi-judicial function. The articles of charges levelled against the delinquent employee must be found to have been proved. The enquiry officer is duty-bound to arrive at a finding upon taking into consideration the materials brought on record by the parties. The proceeding has to be conducted against any person in a strict adherence to the statutory provisions and the principles of natural justice. The charges would be specific, definite and distinct setting out the details of the incident which forms the basis of the charges. No enquiry can be sustained on vague charges. The enquiry has to be conducted fairly, objectively but not subjectively. The findings should not be unreasonable and perverse nor the same should be based on conjectures and surmises. The court is very a specific on proof and suspicion. Every act or omission on the part of the delinquent employee cannot be a misconduct. The authority must record reasons for arriving at the findings of fact in the context of the statute defining the misconduct. Evidence adduced should not be perfunctory. Even if the delinquent employee does not take the defence or raise any protest, that does not absolve the inquiring   authority from being vitiated for the reason particularly in respect of an order involving adverse or penal consequences.

Central Civil Services (Classification, Control and Appeal) Rules, 1965 under Rule 11 enumerated major and minor penalties and the procedure to conduct the disciplinary proceedings. It has also provided, under many decisions of the Government of India, the difference and definition of major and minor penalties in which major penalty shall be in case of grave and serious charges.

Administrative Tribunals

The Law provides for the establishment of Administrative Tribunal for the Union and the states specifying the jurisdiction and powers of such tribunals, procedure to be followed by the tribunals and excludes the jurisdiction of all courts except the Supreme Court.

The law also provides that the president in case of Union and the Governor in case of a state may make rules and regulations of services and posts in connection with the affairs of the state to such services.

Here it is important to include that only government servants throughout a state can file their respective cases in the tribunal to get their grievances redressed. It means that the tribunals are vested with the authority to hear the grievances of the employees of the state/Union only whereas further the employees working with private companies or organisations which are not owned by the state can only file their cases under industrial disputes in labour courts and industrial tribunals.

Preliminary Enquiry

Normally the disciplinary authority appoints a preliminary enquiry officer to look into the alleged charges against the government servant and if the preliminary enquiry officer is prima facie guilty of the alleged misconduct, he may prepare a charge-sheet of the same and produce it before the disciplinary authority. The proceeding may not be known to the delinquent employee. The disciplinary authority on the basis of the charge-sheet submitted by the preliminary enquiry officer proceed to initiate departmental enquiry and it may start afresh and may not be from the point where the preliminary enquiry officer left. It is an established rule that the preliminary enquiry officer cannot be appointed as enquiry officer in the full-fledged enquiry as he may be prejudiced to the delinquent employee because he had already framed a charge-sheet against him in the preliminary enquiry.

Procedure TConduct Enquiry ICase OMajor Penalty

The appointing authority/ disciplinary authority has to issue in order to initiate the disciplinary proceedings against the government servant. Sometimes the Governor of the state has to do the same as he is being the appointing authority of the specified government servants. The disciplinary authority may himself enquire into the charges or appoint an officer subordinate to the enquiry officer to enquire into the charges. The charge-sheet shall be approved by the disciplinary authority. The charges should be precise and clear to facilitate the government servant of the facts and circumstances against him. The documentary evidences and the names of witnesses proposed should prove the same along with oral evidence.

The delinquent government servant shall be required to submit a written statement of his defence in person within a specified time period mentioned in the book of rules preferably within 15 days from the date of issue/receipt of the order. The government servant shall have to state that whether he desires to cross examine any witness mentioned in the charge-sheet or whether he desires to produce some new or extra evidence. He shall also be informed that in case a written submission is not filed within the specified date it will be presumed that he has none to furnish and the enquiry officer shall proceed to complete the enquiry ex parte.

It has also been decided by a court judgement that after the charge-sheet is given to the employee, an oral enquiry is must and notice should be given to the employee intimating him about the date, time and place of enquiry. It has also been laid down in this case that if an opportunity to the employee to produce witnesses or to rebut the evidence against him is not given then the whole enquiry is liable to be quashed ab initio and the punishment on the basis of such enquiry report shall not be sustainable.

It is settled law that the documents relied in support of the charges have to be proved in departmental enquiry by the enquiry officer in the presence of the delinquent employee. The government servant is also at liberty to ask for documents in case they are mentioned in the charge-sheet. But is the same have not been annexed with the charge-sheet, then opportunity of inspection has to provided.

Per contra if the charged government employee admits the charges, the enquiry officer shall submit his report to the disciplinary authority without further proceedings in enquiry but where the charged government servant denies the charges, the enquiry officer shall proceed with the enquiry to call on the witnesses as per the rules framed under the law in the presence of the government employee who shall be given the opportunity to cross examine such witnesses. After recording the aforesaid evidence, the enquiry officer records oral evidence if the charged government servant desired so in his written defence submission. The enquiry officer may ask what he pleases at any time from any witness or from the person charged with a view to discover the truth or to obtain proof. The disciplinary authority may appoint a presenting officer to present the facts of charges from the government side whereas the charged government servant too can take help of a retired government employee or legal practitioner if the enquiry officer gives his consent for it.

When the enquiry is complete, the enquiry officer shall submit its enquiry report to the disciplinary authority along with all records. The report shall consist of sufficient record of brief facts, the evidence and statement of findings on each charge with reasons thereof but the enquiry officer shall not make any recommendation about the penalty. The enquiry officer shall have to submit his final report within six months from the date of issuance of the order by the disciplinary authority and he is bound to adhere to the time-limit. In any case the total time-limit to complete a disciplinary proceeding should not exceed 18 months from the date of initiation of the proceedings, i.e., from the date of issuance of the framing of charges letter.

If there is vigilance angle, the advice of CVC shall be sought and the time limit for the advice shall be maximum 30 days. For the second advice from the CVC, the same time-limit of 30 days shall be available. Similarly the time limit for concurrence from the UPSC shall be 30 days.

Stage of Tribunal

The cause of action arises due to the impugned punishment order by the disciplinary authority against the delinquent employee and here the role of lawyers come into play to represent the petitioner/the applicant under section 19 of the Administrative Tribunal Act, 1985. Before bringing a case of disciplinary proceeding to the tribunal, the aggrieved employee against whom an adverse order has been passed has to make representation to the appellate authority against the order. It is only after the representations remain unanswered by the authorities or if the delinquent employee has not been satisfied then he can bring his case to the tribunal. The government servant challenges an adverse order as bad order in the tribunal.

The aggrieved employee says in his submissions in the court that the proceeding conducted against him were unjust, unwarranted, malicious and/or arbitrary and the charges levelled against him are unjustified and against the principles of natural justice. The petitioner prays to quash the impugned order as if it had never been passed so that he may be entitled to all consequential service benefits to which he is entitled.

The petitioner may pray for interim relief but the interim relief sought should be different from the final relief. It is prayed in the court that if the impugned order is left to stand it will do irreparable loss to the petitioner.

Conclusion 

Disciplinary action cannot be based on breach of statutory rules or administrative actions which do not supplement rules or are inconsistent with them. Before initiating any disciplinary proceeding the master must be prima facie satisfied that the employee has committed some misconduct. The misconduct must be committed during the tenure of the service. An allegation of misconduct against an officer in relation to his quasi-judicial functions cannot be made merely on the basis that he made a mistake of judgement while passing the order. This is because the administrative adjudication also requires to perform their functions without fear or favour which may be defeated by the constant threat of disciplinary proceedings. 

Disciplinary proceedings cannot be initiated only on the basis of suspicion. There must be a reasonable basis. Those disciplinary proceedings shall be quashed if the exercise of power was not bona fide, e.g. anonymous complaints, biased preliminary enquiry and disregard to the directions of the Chief Justice by the full court. Similarly, if an employee is allowed to retire on attaining the age of superannuation even after initiation of disciplinary proceedings, major management cannot be imposed on him thereafter except under rare circumstances since retirement results in severance of relationship of master and servant. 

Deo Prakash Singh an Advocate practicing at the Patna High Court.

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