CIVIL APPEAL No. 7451 of 2021
DATE OF JUDGEMENT:
4th January 2022
Justice M.R. Shah
Justice Sanjeev Khanna
Appellant (s): The Rajasthan Marudhara Gramin Bank (RMGB) &Anr.
Respondent (s): Ramesh Chandra Meena &Anr.
In the present case, an appeal was filed in the Supreme Court of India against the order of the Division Bench of High Court of Rajasthan where the High Court confirmed the judgment of the single bench which directed the appellant Bank to allow the respondent (petitioner before the high court) to be represented by a retired employee of the Bank in the departmental inquiry initiated against him.
- The facts of the matter are such that the respondent was working as cashier-cum-clerk in the appellant bank. The bank alleged that the respondent committed certain irregularities amounting to misconduct during his work. The bank alleged that the respondent while granting loans to farmers/villagers under a loan scheme of the bank did not take adequate precautions and without written mandates for borrowers, he transferred the loan amount in favour of another person and had thus committed misconduct.
- On 1st November 2019, the bank served a charge sheet to the respondent under Rajasthan MarudharaGramin Bank (Officers and Employees) Service Regulation, 2010 (hereinafter referred to as “2010 Regulation”). The respondent in reply denied all the charges, hence, the bank initiated a departmental inquiry. The bank appointed one Shri K.C. Gupta as an Enquirer Officer (EO).
- The appellant bank under 2010 Regulations and its guidelines allowed the respondent to appoint a Defence Representative (DR) for his assistance. However, the respondent wished to represent himself through a legal practitioner of his own choice. The request was denied under regulation 44 of 2010 guidelines. The respondent then made a request in front of the disciplinary committee for the same, but the request was once again denied citing regulation 44 and lack of complicated legal questions in the matter. The 3rd request for the same was also rejected. During the inquiry proceedings the respondent wished to be represented by one Shri Mahesh Kumar Atal as his DR but the same was turned down. One more request was made in front of the disciplinary committee to permit him to employ either a legal practitioner or a retired bank officer as his DR, which again came to be turned down. Aggrieved, the respondent filed a Civil Writ Petition in the High Court of Rajasthan seeking a direction to the bank to let him appoint a DR of his choice.
- The learned Single Bench of High Court through its order dated 28th January 2021 allowed the writ petition and directed the bank to permit the respondent (petitioner in the High Court) to be represented through a retired bank officer. Aggrieved, the Bank preferred an appeal before a division bench but the same was rejected. Ultimately, the appellant bank filed this appeal in the Supreme Court.
- The Counsel for the appellant/petitioner argued that the High Court had committed a grave error in its judgment. The Counsel cited Regulation 8.2 of the Handbook of Vigilance Administration & Disciplinary Action (hereinafter referred to as handbook) which provides that the DO should be a serving official or an employee from the Bank.
- The Counsel for the petitioner contended that the High Court erred in interpreting Regulation 44 to mean that outsiders are permitted in disciplinary proceedings. The counsel stated that Regulation 44 restricts a legal practitioner to be DR without prior permission. The High Court failed to refer to the handbook and 2010 regulations in a harmonious manner, contended the counsel for the appellants.
- The Counsel for the petitioner further submitted that the right to representation in the inquiry can be restricted or regulated by a Statute, Service Rules, Regulations, Standing Orders, etc. The counsel placed reliance on the judgment in the case of Cipla Limited &Ors v. Ripu Daman Bahnot&Anr. ; Indian Overseas Bank vs. Indian Overseas Bank Officer’s Association and Another; and, Crescent Dyes & Chemicals Limited v. Ram Naresh Tripathi. Moreover, the counsel cited the judgment in the case of Bharat Petroleum Corporation Limited v. Maharashtra General Kamgar Union &Ors. where the court held that if Statute, Service Rules, Regulations or Standing Orders, permits, there should be a minimum intervention of an outsider/legal practitioner in departmental proceedings and the choice.
- The counsel for the respondent submitted that the order of the High Court requires no interference. The counsel argued that Regulation 44 doesn’t bar the appointment of a retired bank employee as DO. Only bar provided under regulation 44 is on a legal practitioner and that too can be appointed with the permission of the Bank. Moreover, the rules mentioned in the Handbook are just directory in nature and therefore not binding.
- The counsel for the respondent further contended that every bank has its unique regulations so the judgments cited by the counsel for the appellant are thus not applicable in the present case. The counsel relied on the judgment in the case of Rakesh Singh vs. Chairman and Disciplinary Authority and Another where the court held that in the absence of any specific bar in the Regulation, the denial of the right to engage a retired employee of the Bank as defense representative is not justified.
Whether the respondent employee, as a matter of right, is entitled to avail the services of an Ex-employee of the Bank as his DR in the departmental proceedings?
- In the course of the order, the Court referred to multiple judgments for a better understanding of the complexity of the issue. The Court first referred to the judgment in the case of N. Kalindi&Ors. v. Tata Locomotive &Engg. Co. Ltd and Dunlop Rubber Co. (India) Ltd v.Workmen. In both cases, it was observed that there is no per se right to representation in the departmental proceedings through a representative from one’s own union unless the company by its Standing Order has recognized such a right. Moreover, the denial of such a right cannot be said to be in violation of principles of natural justice.
- The Court then referred to the judgment in the case of Crescent Dyes and Chemicals Ltd. (supra), where it was observed that in the departmental proceedings the right to be represented through counsel or agent can be restricted, controlled, or regulated by statute, rules, regulations or Standing Orders. A delinquent has no right to be represented through counsel or agent unless the law specifically confers such a right. A similar view was also expressed by the Court in the case of Bharat Petroleum Corporation Limited (supra) as well as in the case of National Sees Corporation Limited.
- In the light of the aforementioned judgments, the court in the present case held that the respondent employee has no absolute right to avail the services of an ex-employee of the Bank as his DR in the departmental proceedings. The court noted that Regulation 44 puts specific restrictions on the engagement of a legal practitioner as it provides that for the purpose of an inquiry the Employee shall not engage a legal practitioner without prior permission of the competent authority. However, availing of the services of a legal practitioner is still permissible with the leave of the competent authority under Regulation 44. Hence, the 2010 regulations neither permit nor deny the right to appoint any outsider and/or ex-employee of the Bank as DR and to that extent, Regulation can be said to be silent on the issue.
- The Supreme Court accepted that the High Court erred in its judgment in only considering 2010 regulations and not the Handbook. As per Clause 8 of the Handbook which is applicable to all the employees of the Bank specifically provides that DR should be serving official/employee from the Bank. The Court should have considered the 2010 regulations and the provisions of the handbook in harmony, held by the Supreme court.
- Hence, the Court allowed the appeal, and the impugned order passed by the learned Single Judge confirmed by the Division Bench permitting the respondent delinquent officer to be represented in the departmental proceedings through an ex-employee of the Bank was quashed.
The Supreme Court in the present case explained the principle that the right to representation can be denied in light of specific regulations for intradepartmental inquiries. An employee doesn’t have an absolute right to be represented by an agent of his choice in departmental proceedings.
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