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2023 (5) TMI 1252 - SUPREME COURT
Several allegations of sexual harassment against the Appellant - Breach of the principles of natural justice - ample opportunities to the Appellant to cross-examine the complainants and the witnesses was provided - appellant deliberately elected not to appear before the court - incidents in question relate to the period when the Vishaka Guidelines were in place and it had been clarified in Medha Kotwal Lele [2012 (10) TMI 1269 - SUPREME COURT] that the Complaints Committee will be deemed to be an inquiry authority for the purposes of the CCS Rules - HELD THAT:-It may be clarified at the outset that to satisfy itself that no injustice has been meted out to the Appellant, the High Court was required to examine the decision-making process and not just the final outcome. In other words, in exercise of powers of judicial review, the High Court does not sit as an Appellate Authority over the factual findings recorded in the departmental proceedings as long as those findings are reasonably supported by evidence and have been arrived at through proceedings that cannot be faulted on account of procedural illegalities or irregularities that may have vitiated the process by which the decision was arrived at.
Rule 14 prescribes the procedure required to be followed for conducting an inquiry by a Public Authority which entails issuance of a charge sheet, furnishing details of the Articles of Charge, enclosing statements of imputations in respect of each Article of charge, forwarding of a list of witnesses and the documents sought to be relied upon by the Management/employer. The said procedure may not have been strictly followed by the Committee in the present case, but it is not in dispute that all the complaints received from time to time and the depositions of the complainants were disclosed to the Appellant - The charges levelled by all the complainants were of sexual harassment by the Appellant with a narration of specific instances. Therefore, in the given facts and circumstances, non-framing of the Articles of Charge by the Committee cannot be treated as fatal. Nor can the Appellant be heard to state that he was completely in the dark as to the nature of the allegations levelled against him and was not in a position to respond appropriately. So far, so good.
The undue haste demonstrated by the Committee for bringing the inquiry to a closure, cannot justify curtailment of the right of the Appellant to a fair hearing. The due process, an important facet of the principles of natural justice was seriously compromised due to the manner in which the Committee went about the task of conducting the inquiry proceedings - This Court has repeatedly observed that even when the Rules are silent, principles of natural justice must be read into them. In its keen anxiety of being fair to the victims/complainants and wrap up the complaints expeditiously, the Committee has ended up being grossly unfair to the Appellant. It has completely overlooked the cardinal principle that justice must not only be done, but should manifestly be seen to be done. The principles of audi alteram partem could not have been thrown to the winds in this cavalier manner.
In the instant case, though the Committee appointed by the Disciplinary Authority did not hold an inquiry strictly in terms of the step-by-step procedure laid down in Rule 14 of the CCS (CCA) Rules, nonetheless, we have seen that it did furnish copies of all the complaints, the depositions of the complainants and the relevant material to the Appellant, called upon him to give his reply in defence and directed him to furnish the list of witnesses that he proposed to rely on. Records also reveal that the Appellant had furnished a detailed reply in defence.
There is no doubt that matters of this nature are sensitive and have to be handled with care. The Respondents had received as many as seventeen complaints from students levelling serious allegations of sexual harassment against the Appellant. But that would not be a ground to give a complete go by to the procedural fairness of the inquiry required to be conducted, more so when the inquiry could lead to imposition of major penalty proceedings. When the legitimacy of the decision taken is dependent on the fairness of the process and the process adopted itself became questionable, then the decision arrived at cannot withstand judicial scrutiny and is wide open to interference.
This Court is, therefore, of the opinion that the proceedings conducted by the Committee with effect from the month of May, 2009, fell short of the "as far as practicable" norm prescribed in the relevant Rules. The discretion vested in the Committee for conducting the inquiry has been exercised improperly, defying the principles of natural justice. As a consequence thereof, the impugned judgment upholding the decision taken by the EC of terminating the services of the Appellant, duly endorsed by the Appellate Authority cannot be sustained - matter is remanded back to the Complaints Committee to take up the inquiry proceeding as they stood on 5th May 2009.