The Delhi High Court has said that findings of departmental authorities in disciplinary proceedings cannot be challenged by the employee under Article 226 of the Constitution of India, on the grounds of adequacy or reliability.
"It is also a settled proposition that if the enquiry is properly held the departmental authorities are the sole judge of facts," Justice Dinesh Kumar Sharma said.
The court was dealing with a writ petition filed by a bank employee, who was dismissed from service in 1995 for misconduct and fraud after a departmental enquiry was conducted by the bank. The employee challenged the award passed by the Central Government Industrial Tribunal (CGIT), where the petitioner’s claim for reinstatement in service was dismissed.
Ruling that it does not deem it fit to interfere with the finding of fact returned by the Industrial Tribunal holding the petitioner guilty for misconduct, the court said:
“In the banking business absolute devotion, integrity and honesty are a sine qua non for every bank employee. It requires that the employees maintain good conduct and discipline as they deal with the money of the depositors and the customers and if it is not observed, the confidence of the public/depositors would be impaired. The banking system is the backbone of the Indian economy. An officer who is found to have been involved in financial irregularities while performing his duty as a bank officer, cannot be let off even if there is a minor infraction in the inquiry report.”
In the department enquiry initiated against the petitioner, Sneh Aggarwal, it was found that she had committed fraud while working as an Advanced Level Punching Machine Operator in the branch office of the Punjab National Bank (PNB). The case against her was that while she had issued FDR for a sum of Rs. 60,000, only a sum of Rs. 6,000 was deposited with the bank.
Concurring with the Enquiry Report submitted by the Enquiry Officer, the Disciplinary Authority imposed a punishment of dismissal from service on her. She, thereafter, raised an industrial dispute and the matter was referred to the Industrial Tribunal, which upheld the punishment of dismissal.
The Tribunal ruled that the bank was able to prove beyond doubt Aggarwal's misconduct. The Tribunal concluded that she was acting against the interest of the bank and that the enquiry conducted by the Enquiry officer was in consonance with principles of natural justice.
Aggarwal challenged the award of the Industrial Tribunal before the High Court. She argued that the findings of the Tribunal were perverse and contradictory, were based on conjectures and irrelevant material and thus, the High Court can interfere with the findings in exercise of its writ jurisdiction.
The court noted that the legislature has not provided any appeal against the award of the Labour Court/Industrial Tribunal, making the Labour Court/ Industrial Tribunal the final adjudicator of facts.
“It is a settled proposition that the award of the Labour Court can be set aside only if there is an error apparent on the face of the record. It is impermissible for the High Courts under its writ jurisdiction to re-appreciate evidence and substitute its view with that of the Labour Court/ Tribunals," the court said.
The bench added: “thus, in writ jurisdiction, the High Court can interfere with an Award of the Labour Court/Tribunal, if there is patent illegality or if the award rendered is contrary to law as a measure of ‘misplaced sympathy’ and was thus perverse. If the Tribunal under special legislation is empowered to decide jurisdictional facts, the High Court cannot adjudicate upon the question of facts decided by such Tribunals.”
The court took note that, based on the oral submissions and documentary evidence produced by the parties before it, the Industrial Tribunal had categorically held that the services of the petitioner were legally and justifiably terminated.
“A bare perusal of the enquiry proceedings also crystallises that due and reasonable opportunities were given to the Petitioner/workman to defend herself," the court said.
The court said the petitioner has only raised disputed questions of facts which were examined by the Tribunal as the fact finding court.
"The Tribunal and before that the departmental authorities i.e; the disciplinary authority and appellate authority have all concluded that the Petitioner/workman misconducted herself and was not a reliable person to be kept in the employment of the bank,” the court observed, adding it does not find any infirmity, perversity, illegality, or jurisdictional error in the impugned order.
However, the bench took into account that the petitioner had served the Bank for 13 years and there was no complaint or criminal proceedings initiated against her during the said period. The Court thus modified the punishment by substituting the punishment of removal from service to that of compulsory retirement.
"The petitioner thus shall be entitled to all benefits which may be available to her by correcting the punishment from that of removal from service to that of compulsory retirement. The present petition is thus allowed to the aforesaid extent," said the court.