SC: Inquiry officer cannot be a presiding officer in a departmental inquiry


The Supreme Court of India comprising a bench of Justice Adarsh Kumar Goel and Justice Ashok Bhushan in the case of Union of India v. Ram Lakhan Sharma (Civil Appeal 2608 of 2012 and other tagged matters) has held that the order of the Disciplinary Authority of the Central Reserve Police Force (hereinafter referred to as the CRPF) dismissing the Respondents is violative of the Principles of Natural Justice as the inquiry officer cannot be a presiding officer in a departmental inquiry and thereby upheld the order of the Single Judge and Division Bench of the High Court which ordered for a fresh Departmental Proceedings.

In the instant cases, the respondents are the employees of the CRPF who were dismissed from it on grounds of misbehavior / misconduct by a Disciplinary Authority after Disciplinary Proceedings that were held as per Rule 27 of the CPRF Rules, 1955.

Under the said Rule 27 of the CRPF Rules (which are a part of the CRPF Act, 1949 which has been enacted by the Parliament, which provides for the holding of disciplinary authority does not provide for appointment of Presiding Officer. The respondents have said that the appointment of the Presiding Officer is necessary to ensure compliance of the principles of Natural Justice which having not been done the Respondents have been seriously prejudiced as the Inquiry officer who was appointed by the CRPF himself acted as a prosecutor by putting questions to the prosecution witnesses because of which the entire approach towards the inquiry was tainted with bias which is violative of the principles of Natural Justice.

A constitution bench of the Supreme Court of India in the case of A.K. Kraipak and others v. Union of India and others, AIR 1970 SC 150 has observed,

“20. The aim of the rules of natural justice is to secure justice or to put it negatively to prevent miscarriage of justice. These rules can operate only in areas not covered by any law validly made. In other words they do not supplant the law of the land but supplement it. The concept of natural justice has undergone a great deal of change in recent years. In the past it was thought that it included just two rules namely (1) no one shall be a judge in his own case (Nemo debet esse judex propria causa) and (2) no decision shall be given against a party without affording him a reasonable hearing (audi alteram partem). Very soon thereafter a third rule was envisaged and that is that quasi-judicial enquiries must be held in good faith, without bias and not arbitrarily or unreasonably….” (emphasis supplied)

Furthermore, in the case of State of Uttar Pradesh and Ors v. Saroj Kumar Sinha, 2010 (2) SCC 772, the Supreme Court has laid down that inquiry officer is a quasi-judicial authority who has to act as an independent adjudicator and he is not a representative of the department/disciplinary authority / government.

Thus, it was clear that the Principles of Natural Justice are being violated, however, the question that was before the Hon’ble Supreme Court of India was, “When the statutory provision does not require appointment of Presiding Officer whether there can be any circumstances where principles of natural justice can be held to be violated is the broad question which needs to be answered in this case.”

In the case of Bharath Electronics Ltd. v. K. Kasi, ILR 1987 Karnataka 366, the Karnataka High Court observed that the inquiry that the domestic inquiry that was conducted was vitiated since the Presiding Officer was not appointed and further Inquiry officer played the role of the prosecutor. It was held that there is no legal compulsion that the Presiding Officer should be appointed but if the Inquiry Officer plays the role of a Presiding Officer, the inquiry would be invalid.

Similarly, in the case of Workmen of Lambabari Tea Estate, 1966 (2) LLJ 315 the Supreme Court held that if the Inquiry Officer did not keep his function as Inquiry Officer but becomes prosecutor, the inquiry is vitiated.

Furthermore, in the case of Union of India and ors. v.Mohd. Naseem Siddiqui, ILR (2004) MP 821, Chief Justice of MP High Court R.V. Raveendran (as he then was) had enumerated various principles regarding inquiry officers as presiding officers which are fully endorsed by the Supreme Court in the instant case and deciding the case, the court observed,

“35. Thus, the question as to whether Inquiry Officer who is supposed to act independently in an inquiry has acted as prosecutor or not is a question of fact which has to be decided on the facts and proceedings of particular case. In the present case we have noticed that the High Court had summoned the entire inquiry proceedings and after perusing the proceedings the High Court came to the conclusion that Inquiry Officer himself led the examination in chief of the prosecution witness by putting questions. The High Court further held that the Inquiry Officer acted himself as prosecutor and Judge in the said disciplinary enquiry. The above conclusion of the High Court has already been noticed from paragraphs 9 and 10 of the judgment of the High court giving rise to Civil Appeal No.2608 of 2012.

36. The High Court having come to the conclusion that Inquiry Officer has acted as prosecutor also, the capacity of independent adjudicator was lost which adversely affecting his independent role of adjudicator. In the circumstances, the principle of bias shall come into play and the High Court was right in setting aside the dismissal orders by giving liberty to the appellants to proceed with inquiry afresh. We make it clear that our observations as made above are in the facts of the present cases.”

Click here to read the judgment.

About Alabhya Dhamija

AvatarAlabhya is an Advocate practicing at Delhi High Court and other courts in Delhi. Contact:

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