[Administrative Law] Canara Bank and others v/s Debasis Das and others, (2003) 4 SCC 557

Case NameCanara Bank and others v/s Debasis Das and others, (2003) 4 SCC 557
Case NumberCivil Appeal Number 7539 of 1999
CourtBefore the Supreme Court of India
BenchJustice Shivraj V Patil and Justice Arijit Pasayat
Author of the judgmentJustice Arijit Pasayat
Decided OnMarch 12, 2003
Advocate for the appellantP.P. Rao, Senior Advocate (Mukesh K. Giri, G. Balaji, R.C. Jha, Advocates, with him)
Advocate for the respondentJaideep Gupta, Senior Advocate (Rana Mukherjee, Siddharth Gautam, Goodwill Indeevar, Advocates, with him)
Author of the briefAditya Gor

Four charge-sheets dated 5-11-1987, 12-12-1987, 23-3-1989 and 25-5-1989 were issued to Respondent 1 Debasis Das (“the employee”) by the functionaries of Canara Bank, a Government of India undertaking. Disciplinary proceedings were commenced.

Charge-sheet dated 5-11-1987 related to the non-vacation of a residential quarter by the employee after the expiry of the lease period. The factual details of the rest are below:

Date Events occurred
28-8-1989 On completion of inquiry in respect of the charge-sheet dated 5-11-1987, disciplinary authority by an order directed dismissal of the employee from the services of the Bank.
13-9-1989 The order is the bone of contention between the parties which is to be revealed now.
14-12-1990 Above order was challenged before the Calcutta HC and the court on this date set aside the dismissal order
28-1-1991 The employee was reinstated. After reinstatement three office orders were issued to proceed with the inquiries relating to the other three charge-sheets.
6-4-1991 The employee requested to drop the proceedings in the said charge-sheets and to exonerate him from the charges contained.
23-4-1991 He was advised by the authority to attend inquiry proceedings
30-9-1991 The list of documents along with the copy was sent to the employee
24-11-1992 The employee for the first time took the stand that he had been exonerated of the charges contained in the three charge-sheets and all proceedings in connection therewith had been dropped. Along with his letter, a photocopy purporting to be a copy of a letter dated 13-9-1989 written by one Shri K.V. Nayak, an officer of the Bank was sent.
21-5-1994

According to the appellant bank, the enclosure to the employee’s letter dated 24-11-1992 was a fabricated document and contents of the actual letter dated 13-9-1989 sent by the Bank had been interpolated. Treating the letter to be a fabricated document further charge-sheet dated 21-5-1994 was issued where it was stated that during the progress of the pending three inquiries the employee had produced certain forged/fabricated documents before the disciplinary authority and thus constituted misconduct.

7-6-1994

The employee wrote to the Acting Deputy General Manager that the proceedings dated 13-9-1989 received by him from the Bank were signed by the Deputy General Manager and not by the Acting General Manager or Shri K.V. Nayak as alleged or et al.

1-4-1995

The employee made a statement that he wanted to make further submissions in his written briefs which he would be submitting in terms of Rule 6(18) and he was closing his evidence/defense. he Presenting Officer was directed by the inquiry officer to submit his written briefs within 10 days i.e. before 12-4-1995. He was also instructed to send a copy of his written briefs to the charged officer simultaneously. The employee was further directed to submit his written briefs within 10 days of the receipt of the written briefs from the Presenting Officer.

19-4-1995

The presenting officer submitted his written briefs

2-5-1995

Since no written briefs were sent by the employee, the inquiry officer sent his report to the disciplinary authority

19-5-1995

The disciplinary authority sent copy of the enquiry report to the employee and asked for his submission in relation to the findings recorded by the inquiry authority. The employee took the stand that he could not submit written briefs as he had not received copy of the Presenting Officer’s written briefs. He requested a copy.

2-7-1995

The disciplinary authority wrote to the employee that the Presenting Officer’s briefs were sent to him on 2-5-1995 and as such he could make his submission based on the findings of the enquiry officer and also on the oral/documentary evidence which were recorded during the course of inquiry. He further informed that such submissions would be taken into account for final decision in the matter.

12-7-1995

The employee by his letter stated that without copy of the Presenting Officer’s written briefs no effective submissions could be made on the findings of the enquiry report. The disciplinary authority sent copy of the briefs to the employee and asked him to make his submissions on the findings of the enquiry report. The employee asked for time till 10-8-1995.

4-8-1995

The employee stated that the written briefs were being sent for consideration of the enquiry officer.

7-8-1995

The disciplinary authority asked the employee to file submissions to the findings of the inquiry authority.

12-8-1995 The employee took the stand that the written briefs should be considered by the inquiry authority where after the findings of the inquiry officer should be made and he should be permitted 30 days’ time to give his submissions on the findings of the said report. He did not make or send submissions on the findings of the inquiry officer.
29-9-1995

The disciplinary authority held the employee guilty and imposed a punishment of dismissal from service agreeing with the findings of the inquiry officer.

11-10-1995

The Howrah Branch of the appellant Bank received an order for effecting service on the employee. But he left the Bank along with certain keys. The complaint was lodged before the police on 13-10-1995 regarding the removal of the keys.

 6-11-1995

The employee filed writ petition before the Calcutta High Court. Learned Single Judge of the High Court passed interim order restraining the Bank from giving effect to the final order.

8-11-1995

The employee attended the Bank. An appeal was preferred against the interim order by the Bank and the appellate court vacated the interim order. The employee filed a special leave petition before this Court which was dismissed.

5-2-1996

The order of dismissal was given effect operative from 29-1-1996. The employee filed an appeal before the prescribed departmental appellate authority.

8-1-1997

The employee was informed that the Appellate Authority would give personal hearing to him on 27-1-1997. During personal hearing, the employee submitted a written statement and submitted some documents, one of them purported to be a copy of letter dated 13-9-1989, which was at variance with the one which was produced by the employee earlier and was also at variance with the original letter produced by the management during the inquiry. According to the appellant, this letter was another forged and fabricated document and this time the letter was claimed to have been signed by the Deputy General Manager and not by the Acting General Manager. The Appellate Authority passed an order upholding the order of dismissal.

The employee filed Writ Petition No. 9707(W) of 1997, with an application for the return of the documents produced by him before the Appellate Authority. Learned Single Judge disposed of the interim application directing the appellant Bank to return the original documents produced by the employee before the Appellate Authority. When these documents were returned to the employee he refused to accept them stating that he had not filed them before the Appellate Authority. The learned Single Judge allowed the writ petition holding that the inquiry officer had given an opportunity to the Presenting Officer to file his written briefs and similar opportunity ought to have been given to the employee and thus there has been a violation of principles of natural justice. Further direction was given to send the disputed documents to the Government Handwriting and Questioned Documents’ Expert.

The said order was challenged before the Division Bench. The appeal was dismissed by the Division Bench, inter alia, with the conclusion that provisions of Regulation 6(18) are mandatory in nature and the employee did not get an opportunity to file his written briefs before the inquiry officer. Prejudice is patent as the author of the disputed documents was not produced to prove or disprove his signature and contents of the letters in question. Written briefs had to be considered by the inquiry officer in terms of Regulation 6(18), and order of dismissal shows that written briefs of the employee had not been considered. An unfair trial cannot be cured by a fair appeal.

 

The issues raised before the court are as follows:

  1. What is the scope and ambit of regulation 6(18) and 6(21) of the Canara Bank Officers Employees (Conduct) Regulations, 1976? (Para 2)
  2. Whether the principles of natural justice has been violated or not? And if so, to what extent a prejudice has been caused? (Para 12)

The arguments raised by the counsel for the bank are (Para 3):

  1. True import of regulation 6(18) has not been considered by the High Court
  2. There was full compliance of principles of Audi Alteram Partem and thus there was no prejudice caused to the employee by the disciplinary authority.
  3. Even if there was a defect in the order of the disciplinary authority, the same was made correct by the appellate authority which provided the employee personal hearing.
  4. Post decisional hearing is permissible.

The arguments raised by the counsel for the employee are(Para 4):

  • The inquiry officer had permitted the filing of the written briefs by the employee after written briefs were submitted by the Presenting Officer. As the employee had not received the copy of written briefs, therefore, there was a delay and the inquiry officer was duty-bound to consider the written briefs of the employee.
  • Merely because the Appellate Authority granted opportunity of personal hearing, that did not cure the incurable defect in the proceedings.
  • Furthermore, the directions of the learned Single Judge for sending the disputed documents to the expert stand and the Bank is not prejudiced in any manner. He, in essence, supported the High Court’s judgment.

The court decided the case on the basis of the following reasoning-

It is to be noted that the disciplinary authority can himself be the inquiring authority. In that sense, the inquiry officer is an agent of the disciplinary authority. The Regulations make this position crystal clear in Regulation 7. It is to be noted that both the expressions “may” and “shall” appear in Regulation 7. The former expression is used when the disciplinary authority, if it is not the inquiring authority can remit the case to the inquiring authority for fresh or further inquiry and report and the latter expression is used vis-à-vis the inquiring authority who is required to proceed to conduct further inquiry according to provisions of Regulation 6 as far as may be applicable. (Para 7)

Regulation 6(21)(ii) deals with the documents which are to be forwarded to the disciplinary authority in case it is not the inquiring authority. The documents to be forwarded include the written briefs referred to in sub-regulation (18). A bare reading of sub-regulation (18) of Regulation 6 makes the position clear that there is no requirement of the employee being granted an opportunity to file written briefs after the Presenting Officer files written briefs. On the contrary, as the provisions postulate, after completion of production of evidence, two options are open to the inquiry officer. It may hear the Presenting Officer appointed and the employee concerned or in the alternative, permit them to file written briefs within 15 days of the date of completion of the production of evidence if they so desire. The written briefs are relatable to the cases of the party concerned; otherwise the expression “respective case” would be meaningless. (Para 8 & 9)

It is to be further noted that in the appeal before the Appellate Authority findings of the inquiry officer was challenged and, therefore, the question of any prejudice does not arise. Since the employee had the opportunity to meet the standard of the Bank, it was to his advantage, and opportunity for personal hearing was also granted, through Regulation 6(18) does not even speak of granting such an opportunity. Thus the conclusion arrived at by the learned single judge and the division bench that there was violation of principles of natural justice cannot be maintained (Para 10 & 11)

Natural justice is another name for common-sense justice. Rules of natural justice are not codified canons. The administration of justice is to be freed from the narrow and restricted considerations which are usually associated with a formulated law involving linguistic technicalities and grammatical niceties. There exists no watertight classification between expressions “natural justice” and “legal justice”. It is the substance of the justice which is to be secured by both and whenever legal justice fails to achieve this solemn purpose, natural justice is called in aid for legal justice. (Para 13 & 14)

When any Quasi-judicial body embarks on determining the disputes between the parties or an administrative action is taken which involves civil consequences then it is necessary that principles of natural justice are followed. The foremost principle of natural justice is Audi Alteram Partem i.e. No one should be condemned unheard. Principles of Natural Justice are those rules which have been laid down by the courts as being the minimum protection of individual’s rights against the arbitrary procedure which may be adopted by the judicial, quasi-judicial or administrative authority. (Para 15 & 16)

The rules of natural justice are not codified and depend mostly on facts and circumstances of the dispute and the framework of the statute where the enquiry is held. Over the period of judicial interpretation, two basic principles of natural justice have evolved (Para 19 & 21):

  1. Nemo Judex In causa Sua – No One shall be a judge in his own cause
  2. Audi Alteram Partem- Hear the other side.

In the present case, nothing was evidenced to show that the person was prejudiced. In the case at hand, post-decisional hearing can substitute pre-decisional hearing (but this is not true in every case). Further at no stage, the employee pleaded prejudice. Both the learned single judge and the Division Bench proceeded on the basis that prejudice was caused and hence under such circumstances, it cannot be said that regulation 6(18) was interpreted correctly. (Para 24 & 27)

The Supreme Court came to two major conclusions in the present case (Para 29):

  1. The judgment of division bench that affirmed the judgment of the single bench that the principles of natural justice have been violated stands quashed.
  2. With regards to the merits of the case an examination of the document by the government expert was order by the court:
    1. If the expert is of the opinion that the documents are genuine then the dismissal will be vacated.
    2. If the appellant bank does not file the original documents then the High Court will order accordingly either upholding or setting aside the dismissal order as the case maybe.

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