[Case Brief] Canara Bank and others v/s Debasis Das and others, 2003

Canara Bank & Others v/s Debasis Das & Others (2003) was decided on 12th March 2003 by a two-judge bench of the Honourable Supreme Court. The appellant in the present case is Canara Bank, a Government of India undertaking while the respondent is Debasis Das.

Brief facts and Procedural History:

Four charge-sheets were issued to Debasis Das (“the employee”) by the functionaries of Canara Bank, a Government of India undertaking. Disciplinary proceedings were commenced against Debasis Das.

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. On completion of the inquiry, the disciplinary authority directed dismissal of the employee from the services of the bank. This order was challenged before the Calcutta HC and the HC set aside the dismissal order. After that, the employee was reinstated.

Then the office orders were issued to proceed with the inquiries in three other charge sheets. The employee requested to exonerate him from the said charges and he took a stand that by virtue of letter dated 13-9-1989 written by Shri K.V. Nayak, an officer of the Bank, he was exonerated. The bank took the stand that the said letter dated 13-9-1989 was a fabricated document. Thus the bank filed another charge sheet mentioning that the employee by producing fabricated documents has indulged in misconduct.

The disciplinary authority found the employee guilty and dismissed him from the services. The employee filed a writ petition before the Calcutta High Court wherein the single judge bench of the Calcutta high court passed an interim order restraining the dismissal. 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 the Supreme Court which was dismissed. The order of dismissal was made effective.

The employee filed an appeal before the prescribed departmental appellate authority. The appellate authority passed an order upholding the order of dismissal.

The employee filed Writ Petition 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.

Issues raised before the Court:

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

The ratio of the Court (As authored by Justice Arijit Pasayat):

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.

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.

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 a violation of principles of natural justice cannot be maintained.

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.

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. 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 inquiry is held. Over the period of judicial interpretation, two basic principles of natural justice have evolved.

Nemo Judex In causa Sua – No One shall be a judge in his own cause

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.

Decision Held:

The Supreme Court came to two major conclusions in the present case:

  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 ordered 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 may be.

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