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Mere acquittal does not entitle an employee to reinstatement in service: SC

The State Of Rajasthan & Ors. V. Heem Singh

Civil Appeal No. 3340 of 2020 (Arising out of SLP (C) No. 30763 of 2019)

29th October 2020.

Counsel for Appellants: Mr. Ashish Kumar.

Counsel for Respondents: Mr. Jasmeet Singh.

The Hon'ble Supreme Court comprising of Justices DY Chandrachud and Indira Banerjee held that the acquittal from a Criminal Trial does not conclude the Disciplinary enquiry or affect the disciplinary proceedings.

This appeal is from a Division Bench of High Court of Rajasthan at Jodhpur dated 24.4.2019. The Respondent, who was a constable filed a petition under Article 226 of the Constitution challenging his dismissal from service after a disciplinary enquiry. A Single Judge of the High Court dismissed the petition on 1.2.2018. The Division Bench then reversed the judgment and concluded that there is no sustainable evidence which proved that the respondent committed a murder on his leave from duty. Consequently, he has also been acquitted from a charge of murder in Sessions Court. The Division Bench granted the respondent reinstatement in service with no back wages for the seventeen years that elapsed since his termination. The State comes in appeal. This Court sets aside the direction of the Division Bench for reinstatement and the direction of the High Court that the respondent shall not be entitled to back wages is upheld.

The Respondent, a constable in the Police department of Rajasthan from 1992, proceeded on a leave on 13.08.2002 and instead of reporting back on 16.08.2002, came back to work on 19.03.2002 and was granted permission for over staying on the ground that his relative died. On 15.08.2002, a person in Khamnaur filed a complaint of his brother, Bhanwar Singh's accident by an unknown vehicle. On further investigation, the offence was homicidal and punishable under Sec.302 of Indian Penal Code. The Respondent was arrested on 9.9.2002 and Lokesh Gurva and Iqbal Khan were co-accused and committed for trial under Additional Sessions Judge, Nathdwara. The case of prosecution was that the respondent and the deceased had a grudge over a property issue and on the death of the respondent's father. During pendency of criminal trial, charge sheet convening disciplinary proceedings under the provisions of Rule 16 of the Rajasthan Civil Services Rules, 1958 was issued. By a judgment dated 8.10.2003, the Additional Sessions Judge acquitted the respondent and the two co-accused, giving them the benefit of doubt. The disciplinary enquiry on charge on murder proceeded with the same evidence and the enquiry officer found the charges to be proved. On 11.12.2003, the District Superintendent of Police came to the conclusion that though the respondent had been given the benefit of doubt in the criminal trial, the charges against him stood established. He was dismissed from service. The appeal and the review before the State government were dismissed on 17.6.2005 and 29.8.2008 respectively. This led to Writ proceedings which was dismissed by a Learned Single Judge on 1.2.2018. The Division Bench by appeal, on 24.4.2019 reversed the judgment and directed re- instatement of the respondent in service with consequential benefits but without back-wages.

The Legal issues framed and presented before this court from the given contention are as follows:
1. Whether the charge of misconduct stands established in this case on the basis of some evidence, applying the evidentiary principle of a preponderance of probabilities.
2. Whether the connection of the respondent with the circumstances leading to the death of Bhanwar Singh affected his ability to continue in the State police force without affecting its integrity and reputation.
3. Whether in arriving at its findings the High Court has transgressed the limitations on its power of judicial review.

The counsel for appellants submits that in a charge for disciplinary proceedings, the establishment of preponderance of probability is to be viewed, unlike in criminal trial where 'beyond reasonable doubt' is to be established. While exercising judicial review under Art.226 of the Constitution, so long as the finding of misconduct is based on some evidence, no interference is warranted. The evidence in the disciplinary committee enquiry clearly states that there was enmity before the respondent and the deceased over a piece of land and the deceased over two years prior to the incident filed a complaint apprehending danger from the respondent. Also, the co-accused being found at the place of incident and the statement of PW1 and PW2 showed the presence of respondent in the vicinity and the acquittal of the respondent in criminal trial does not constitute of clean acquittal but only on benefit of doubt. On the above grounds, it was urged that the High Court has transgressed the limitations on its power of judicial review in interfering with the disciplinary penalty imposed by the appellants.

The counsel for respondent submitted that the disciplinary authority as well as the appellate and reviewing authorities ignored vital evidence, and consequently their findings were perverse as PW1 stated that only under pressure by the Sarpanch did he name the respondent. Since the alleged crime took place outside the scope of service, it was incumbent upon the department to place reliance on the entire record of the Sessions trial in which the respondent was acquitted. Furthermore, the grant of additional casual leave was approved upon his joining duties by the superior officer and the charge was duly modified to state that the approval was taken by misrepresenting facts and if the charge of being involved in the murder is not established, this charge will cease to exist. Also, the respondent was clear of such conduct in the past and the extended leave was only due to the death of his brother-in-law. Based on the above, the High Court having since re-instated the respondent without back-wages, it was urged that no interference by this Court is warranted.

According to the respondent, the disciplinary enquiry pertains to an event which took place outside the fold of his service and asserted that the disciplinary enquiry in regard to the involvement of the respondent in a murder bore no nexus to his employment. The court held that this submission cannot stand scrutiny, having regard to the nature of the employment and the position of the respondent as member of the police force. The State can legitimately assert that it is entitled to proceed against an employee in the position of the respondent in the exercise of its disciplinary jurisdiction, for a breach of the standard of conduct which is expected of a member of the state police service.

The findings of the disciplinary committee put forth that the Additional Sessions Judge found it unsafe to rely upon the evidence of the sole eye-witness, PW1 (at the Sessions Trial) based on the inconsistencies in his evidence. The acquittal of the respondent on the charge of murder was based on the now familiar spectacle of prosecution witnesses turning hostile. The disciplinary proceedings related not merely to the involvement of the respondent in the murder, but to the violation of service rules and the impact of his conduct on the image of the police force. The disciplinary authority arrived at its findings based on the rules governed by Rule 16 of Rajasthan Civil Services Rules, 1958 on the charge of misconduct observing that since it is clear that the Hon'ble Court has not acquitted charged constable in free form, said charge is found to be completely proved due to which the image of police has blurred. The Division Bench of the High Court observed that quite apart from the cross-examination, the examination-in-chief of PW1 was not susceptible to the inference that the respondent was even remotely connected with the murder and the High Court held that there is no evidence to establish that the respondent had conspired or collaborated with the said two persons to murder Bhanwar Singh. The High Court observed that the evidence of the Investigating Officer contains a “vague statement” that the recoveries of the offending articles/vehicle was made at the instance of the accused. There were three accused in the trial, and hence according to the High Court, it was not possible to link the recoveries to the respondent.

The standard of proof in disciplinary proceedings is not the strict standard which governs a criminal trial, of proof beyond reasonable doubt, but a civil standard governed by a preponderance of probabilities. Our precedents indicate that acquittal in a criminal trial in such circumstances does not conclude a disciplinary enquiry. As the judgment in M. Siddiq v. Suresh Das, (2020) 1 SCC indicates, even within the standard of a preponderance of probabilities, the degree depends on the subject matter.

In Inspector General of Police v. S. Samuthiram, (2013) 1 SCC 598 a two-Judge Bench of this Court held that unless the accused has an “honorable acquittal” in their criminal trial, as opposed to an acquittal due to witnesses turning hostile or for technical reasons, the acquittal shall not affect the decision in the disciplinary proceedings and lead to automatic reinstatement. (Para 34)

In the present case, the respondent was acquitted of the charge of murder. The circumstances in which the trial led to an acquittal have been elucidated in detail above. The verdict of the criminal trial did not conclude the disciplinary enquiry. The disciplinary enquiry was not governed by proof beyond reasonable doubt or by the rules of evidence which governed the criminal trial. True, even on the more relaxed standard which governs a disciplinary enquiry, evidence of the involvement of the respondent in a conspiracy involving the death of Bhanwar Singh would be difficult to prove. But there are, as we have seen earlier, circumstances emerging from the record of the disciplinary proceedings which bring legitimacy to the contention of the State that to reinstate such an employee back in service will erode the credibility of and public confidence in the image of the police force. (Para 35)

Furthermore, based on the evidence of the disciplinary proceedings, it was urged that the High Court has transgressed the limitations on its power of judicial review in allowing the appeal, setting aside the judgment of the Single Judge and in interfering with the disciplinary penalty imposed by the appellants.

The Court held that

We, thus, accept the contention of the counsel for appellants and therefore set aside the direction of the Division Bench for reinstatement and the direction of the High Court that the respondent shall not be entitled to back wages is upheld. (Para 36)

In facts of the present case, the ends of justice be served by the respondent being held back from reinstatement as per the Disciplinary Enquiry guided by Rule 16 of the Rules, 1958 and the appeal stands allowed on the above terms.

M. Maheswari



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