The State of Rajasthan and Ors. v. Heem Singh
CIVIL APPEAL No. 3340 OF 2020 decided on 29th October,2020
Bench: Indira Banerjee, D.Y. Chandrachud, JJ.
The state approached the Supreme Court against the order of Rajasthan HC of reinstating the respondent to his service. The respondent in this case was a police constable appointed in 1992. He was charged for a murder case wherein during the pendency of criminal trial, disciplinary enquiry was convened against him. He was acquitted by the Sessions Court on the benefit of doubt, however, the charges against him stood established and he was dismissed from his service. He filed an appeal against this dismissal in the High Court. The High Court granted him reinstatement in service. Aggrieved by such order, the state approached the Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court considered the following issues:
1. Whether the acquittal in criminal trial affects the disciplinary proceedings against the respondent?
2. Whether the standard of proof of misconduct in disciplinary proceedings differs from that in a criminal trial?
3. What is the scope of judicial review over disciplinary matters?
Mr. Ashish Kumar, AAG appearing on behalf of the appellants submitted that:
(i) In a disciplinary enquiry involving a charge of misconduct, the test is whether the charge is established on a ‘preponderance of probabilities’ unlike in a criminal trial where the prosecution has to establish their case ‘beyond reasonable doubt’;
(ii) While exercising judicial review under Article 226 of the Constitution against the findings in a disciplinary enquiry the court cannot re appreciate the evidence in the manner of an appellate court, and so long as the finding of misconduct is based on some evidence, no interference is warranted.
(iii) The High Court has failed to ascribe adequate weight to the orders in the disciplinary proceedings: the order dated 11 December 2003 pursuant to departmental proceedings; the order dated 17 June 2005 of the Inspector General of Police exercising appellate powers, and the order dated 29 August 2008 in review proceedings passed by the Home Department.
Mr. Jasmeet Singh, learned Counsel appearing on behalf of the respondent submitted that:
(i) The departmental enquiry was concluded in violation of the rules governing the enquiry. All the orders in the disciplinary enquiry were based on the examination-in-chief of an alleged eye-witness, PW1 Jodh Singh while ignoring that his deposition was completely demolished in the course of the cross-examination.
(ii) Since the alleged crime took place outside the scope of service, it was incumbent upon the department to place reliance on the entire record of the Sessions trial in which the respondent was acquitted. The departmental enquiry is based on a selective examination of the records of the Sessions Court.
(iii) The entire evidence on record would demonstrate that the respondent was not even remotely connected with the murder of Bhanwar Singh.
With regards to issue (1), the court held that though the acquittal brought finality to the question as to whether the respondent had committed the offence of murder punishable under the Penal Code, however, the disciplinary enquiry stood on a broader footing. The court remarked that the disciplinary proceedings related not merely to the involvement of the respondent in the murder, but to the violation of service rules and the impact of his conduct on the image of the police force. The disciplinary enquiry was not governed by proof beyond a reasonable doubt or by the rules of evidence that governed the criminal trial. Hence,
the standard of proof in disciplinary proceedings is different from that in a criminal trial. In Suresh Pathrella v. Oriental Bank of Commerce, (2006) 10 SCC 572, a two judge Bench held that the proof in a departmental proceeding is preponderance of probabilities. Furthermore, the court asserted that the involvement of a member of the police service in a heinous crime, if established, has a direct bearing on the confidence of society in the police and in this case, on his ability to serve as a member of the force. The State can legitimately assert that it is entitled to proceed against an employee like respondent, for a breach of the standard of conduct which is expected of a member of the state police service.
With regards to issue (3), the court observed that in exercising judicial review in disciplinary matters, there are two ends of the spectrum. The first embodies a rule of restraint. The second defines when interference is permissible. The court held that judicial craft lies in maintaining a steady sail between the banks of these two shores which have been termed as the two ends of the spectrum. Judges do not rest with a mere recitation of the hands-off mantra when they exercise judicial review. To determine whether the finding in a disciplinary enquiry is based on some evidence an initial or threshold level of scrutiny is undertaken. But this does not allow the court to re-appreciate evidentiary findings in a disciplinary enquiry. To do so would offend the first principle i.e. the rule of restraint.
The court thus set aside the direction of the Division Bench for reinstatement. In exercise of the jurisdiction under Article 142 of the Constitution, the Court directed that the cessation from service will notionally take place on the respondent completing minimum qualifying service.