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KEY TAKEAWAYS

  • The scope of disciplinary processes and the scope of criminal proceedings are completely different, exclusive, and independent.
  • An acquittal in a criminal trial has no influence or relevance on disciplinary proceedings, according to the fundamental principle of law, because the standard of proof in both circumstances is different, and the proceedings work in distinct sectors and with different aims.
  • Acquittal in a criminal case does not have any impact on disciplinary proceedings.

INTRODUCTION

The Supreme Court of India comprising of Division bench with Justice M R Shah and Justice BV Nagarathna in the case of Maharashtra State Road Transport Corporation vs Dilip Uttam Jayabhay (2022), vide its judgment dated 3rd January 2022 overruled an Industrial Court Order and Bombay HC’s Order directing the Maharashtra State Road Transport Corporation to reinstate a driver whose services were terminated following a disciplinary investigation. It held that an employee can be dismissed from service based on findings of a disciplinary proceeding for misconduct even though he has been acquitted of the charges by a court of law.

The distinction between the criminal proceedings and disciplinary proceedings was made clear from the recent decision of the Supreme Court in the above-mentioned case. Before, looking at the judgment of the court, the brief facts of the case are that the driver with Maharashtra State Road Transport Corporation was driving a bus involved in an accident in which four people died in October 1992. He was found guilty of negligent driving at a disciplinary proceeding that had been conducted. His service record was taken into account by MSRTC, and he was fired. The Labour Court upheld the dismissal despite acquittal in the criminal case by the trial court. But the Industrial Court overturned the decision and ordered that he be reinstated with which the Bombay High Court went a step further and ordered back wages to be paid. On being aggrieved, the MSRTC filed an appeal with the Supreme Court.

The Supreme court had observed that the High Court, as well as the Industrial Court, have not at all considered and/or appreciated the difference between the disciplinary inquiry and the criminal proceedings. The judgment and order passed by the Industrial Court and the impugned judgment and order passed by the High Court were hereby quashed and set aside and the judgment and award passed by the Labour Court were ordered to be restored. Consequently, the order of dismissal passed by the disciplinary authority dismissing the respondent – workman from service was upheld.

Hence, with reference to the recent case we see that the Supreme Court has broadened and resolved the scope of the disciplinary proceedings and observed that acquittal in a criminal trial has no bearing on disciplinary proceedings. This article elucidates the relevancy of criminal trials on disciplinary proceedings concerninga few landmark judgments linking their strings to the overall contours of the recent Apex court decision.

DISCIPLINARY PROCEEDINGS VIS A VIS CRIMINAL PROCEEDINGS

The departmental inquiry referred to as disciplinary proceedings is apowerful tool in the hands of the administration who have the power to initiate proceedings against an erring official according to the prevailing rules and regulations and the principles of natural justice. To say in much simpler terms, it means any proceeding brought against you by a state regulatory or disciplinary official or agency to investigate charges alleging misconduct. The administration will initiate criminal action against the said individual as a result of certain conduct. The question in this area that generally arises is whether disciplinary proceedings can be held while a delinquent employee is facing criminal charges; whether the criminal court's decision is binding on the disciplinary authorities; or whether disciplinary proceedings can be started after the criminal case has been closed.

On comparing the disciplinary proceedings and criminal proceedings, the primary difference between the two is that the object of the disciplinary proceedings is to ascertain whether the officer concerned is suitable to be retained in service while in the case of the criminal prosecution is to find out whether ingredients of the offense as defined in the penal statute have taken place.

With reference, to the recent decision of the Supreme court in the case of Maharashtra State Road Transport Corporation vs DilipUttamJayabhay (2022), the distinction has been made clear.

RELEVANCE OF CRIMINAL PROCEEDINGS ON DISCIPLINARY PROCEEDINGS

The disciplinary proceedings and criminal proceedings have been distinguished and interpreted in various cases. A few landmark judgments that could be referred to for a better understanding is first, the case of State of Karnataka and Another vs. T. Venkataramanappa (1996), where the Supreme court has observed that the acquittal in a criminal case cannot be held to be a bar to hold a departmental inquiry for the same misconduct for the reason that in a criminal case is to be proved beyond reasonable doubt but in the departmental proceedings, such a strict proof of misconduct is not required.

According to the Supreme Court's guidelines, it is possible to perform both a departmental and a criminal procedure on the same charges at the same time. The legal position in this regard was further consolidated by the Hon'ble Supreme Court in the matter of State of Rajasthan v. B.K. Meena (1996) 6 SCC 417, which established that the strategy and objectives in criminal and disciplinary proceedings are entirely different. Because, as previously mentioned, in a disciplinary proceeding, the question is whether the employee has engaged in conduct that warrants his dismissal or imposition of any other punishment following service rules, as the case may be; and on the other side, in the case of the criminal proceeding, the question is whether an offense attributed to the employee, if proven, would warrant punishment under the criminal law.

Undoubtedly, the Hon'ble Supreme Court has established through a series of judgments that the standard of proof, the procedure of inquiry, and Rules governing disciplinary proceedings are entirely different from the standard of proof, mode of trial, and provisions governing criminal acts in disciplinary proceedings and that an employee may be punished based ona mere preponderance of probability in a departmental proceeding, whereas to establish the charge against him under the criminal act, an employee must establish the charge against him under the criminal act. Therefore, on these grounds, the legal proposition has settled that stay of disciplinary proceedings during the pendency of criminal proceedings should not be a matter of routine but has to be considered decision-based upon the facts of the case. The pieces of evidence in departmental and criminal proceedings only when are identical and are based upon a similar set of facts and the criminal case against the delinquent employee is grave and involves complicated questions of law and fact coupled with the similarity in evidence, it is considered.

Further, in the case ofAjit Kumar Nag v. General Manager (PJ), Indian Oil Corpn. Ltd., (2005) 7 SCC 764,the following points were observed;

i. In criminal law, the prosecution bears the burden of proof, and the accused cannot be convicted by a court of law unless the prosecution can show his guilt "beyond a reasonable doubt." In a departmental investigation, on the other hand, punishment can be imposed on the delinquent officer based on a "preponderance of probability" finding.

ii. A criminal court's acquittal would not prevent an employer from exerting power in conformity with the current Rules and Regulations. The criminal and departmental proceedings are completely different. They work in different sectors and pursue different objectives. While the purpose of a criminal trial is to punish the offender appropriately, the objective of an inquiry is to deal with the delinquent departmentally and apply a penalty in line with service standards.

iii. In a criminal prosecution, incriminating statements made by the accused in specific circumstances or front of specific authorities are completely inadmissible as evidence. Departmental proceedings would not be subject to such stringent requirements of evidence and procedure.

In the case of T.N.C.S. Corporation Ltd. Vs. K. Meerabai, (2006) 2 SCC 255, it has been ruled by the Hon'ble Supreme Court that the scopes of the disciplinary proceedings and criminal proceedings are quite distinct, exclusive, and independent of each other and that the standards of proof in the two proceedings are also different.

Apart from the above-cited cases concerning the criminal proceedings and departmental proceedings, it is pertinent to note here that, acquittal in a criminal case does not have any impact on disciplinary proceedings in the absence of service rules. This was seen in a landmark case named Deputy Inspector General of Police and another Vs. S. Samuthiram, AIR 2013 SC 14. It was observed in this case that mere acquittal of an employee by a criminal Court has no impact on the disciplinary proceeding initiated by the Department.

In some circumstances, even if a domestic investigation is conducted, if an employee is acquitted honorably by a criminal court, he may be reinstated. Whether or not an employee must be reinstated in service is determined by whether or not the service rules provide a provision for reinstatement and not as a matter of right. In the absence of any provision in-service regulations for reinstatement, a delinquent's acquittal, even if honorable, does not grant the right to seek any reward, including reinstatement. The reason for this is that the standard of proof required to convict someone in a criminal court and the standard of proof required in a disciplinary case is completely different.

Therefore, in a criminal proceeding, the prosecution has the burden of proving the accused's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. If the prosecution fails to do so, the accused is presumed innocent. In disciplinary procedures, the high burden of proof required to show guilt in a criminal court is not required, and a preponderance of the evidence is sufficient.

In another case namedState Bank of India v. Neelam Nag 2016 9 SCC 491, the Hon'ble Supreme Court had another opportunity to review this question and concluded that there is no legal restriction to conduct a disciplinary proceeding and a criminal trial concurrently. It was emphasized that the court must take a comprehensive approach in such cases on a case-by-case basis and that the criminal prosecution against the guilty employee cannot be the primary reason for the departmental action to be suspended indefinitely. On the one hand, the necessity for a fair trial for the accused must be balanced against the need for continuous disciplinary action on the other.

CONCLUSION

To put it in a nutshell, referring to the landmark cases decided in the past and the recent case that was decided by the Hon’ble Supreme court the understanding of disciplinary proceedings and criminal proceedings have been very well differentiated. It has been reiterated by the Hon’ble court that acquittal in a criminal case has no bearing or relevance on the disciplinary proceedings as the standard of proof in both the cases are different and the proceedings operate in different fields and have different objectives. It has also been emphasized in previous judgments, the need for speedy conclusion of disciplinary proceedings, and that the criminal liability of an employee cannot be dismissed simply because a disciplinary action has been initiated against him for the same set of allegations and a parallel departmental and criminal proceedings would notconstitute double jeopardy.


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