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  • Sampoorna Chatterjee

Exoneration in Inquiry and Subsequent Discharge in Criminal Proceedings: A Brain-teasing Discourse

[Sampoorna is a student at Amity University, Kolkata.]


While it is a settled position of law that being acquitted in a criminal case will not debar the employer from subjecting the delinquent employee to disciplinary proceedings on the same set of charges, the converse of this, i.e., whether a person exonerated in departmental proceedings would automatically be discharged in criminal proceedings, seems unsettled.


Courts across India – both the Supreme Court and the High Courts – have, time and again, given contrasting decisions on this question of law, and the Delhi High Court’s judgment in Ashish Chauhan v. State (Government of NCT of Delhi) and Another is just another addition to the list. In this case, the court held that if the internal committee (IC) of an organization set up under the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act 2013 had given a clean chit to the accused persons, any criminal proceeding on the same charges could not be sustained in law.


Cases like this have arisen in the past and have attracted significant criticism owing to the distinctive nature of criminal proceedings and disciplinary inquiries. This article attempts to highlight these rulings and the fallacies that are inherent therein.


Background of the Judgment


The respondent was working as a legal trainee at the Head Office of Maruti Suzuki India Limited and was allegedly sexually harassed by the petitioners who were her seniors from the legal department. The petitioners purportedly passed lewd comments, used abusive language, stared at her in a sexually offending manner, and tried to touch her without her consent, and one of them even allegedly offered her to come to his place for drinks. Despite taking up the issue with her seniors at the workplace, no concrete action was taken, as per the respondent. Further, as per the respondent’s version, instead of referring the matter to the IC, her seniors asked her to quit since the company was not going to act against its permanent employees.


Post this, she filed an FIR under Sections 354A and 506 of the Indian Penal Code 1860. Aggrieved, the petitioners approached the High Court of Delhi under Article 226 of the Constitution of India read with Section 482 of the Code of Criminal Procedure 1973 (CrPC) seeking quashing of the FIR and the proceedings arising therefrom.


The question of law before the High Court was to determine whether the petitioners, after having been exonerated in the disciplinary proceedings, could be involved in criminal proceedings on the same set of facts involving identical charges.


The court relied on Ashoo Surendranath Tewari v. Deputy Superintendent Police, EOW, CBI, 2020 (Surendranath) and P.S. Rajya v. State of Bihar, 1996 (P.S. Rajya) to answer in the negative. In Surendranath, the Supreme Court while making a reference to Radhesyam Kejriwal v. State of West Bengal (Kejriwal), observed that if a person is exonerated in disciplinary proceedings on technical grounds as against on the merits of the matter, criminal proceedings may continue. Conversely, if the exoneration is on merit, criminal proceedings cannot be continued. It was so because criminal proceedings demand a higher degree of proof compared to a departmental inquiry. Similarly, in P.S. Rajya, since the charges were one and the same in both the proceedings and the respondent had not disputed the results of the departmental inquiry, the Supreme Court had quashed the criminal proceedings.


Basis the above, the court quashed the FIR against the petitioners.


Criminal Proceedings vis-à-vis Disciplinary Inquiries


The primary point of distinction between criminal proceedings and disciplinary inquiries is the degree of proof required to establish guilt. Criminal proceedings require the guilt to be proven beyond reasonable doubt, i.e., the prosecution needs to prove the guilt of the accused beyond reasonable doubt, otherwise the accused shall be acquitted. On the other hand, departmental proceedings are based on the concept of preponderance of probabilities, i.e., the probability of the happening will determine its existence.


Apart from the differing standards of proof, the objectives, the governing rules, the methods of inquiry, and the rules of evidence are also different for the two. In the case of Ajit Kumar Nag v. G.M.(P.J.)Indian Oil, the Supreme Court drew a distinction between the two by clarifying that in disciplinary proceedings, the endeavour is to ascertain the guilt of the accused and impose punishment basis the applicable service rules, whereas in criminal proceedings, it is to inflict appropriate punishment. While a disciplinary inquiry concerns itself with an employee’s misconduct at the organisational level, criminal proceedings are conducted to inquire into matters which are a wrong against the society as a whole.


Therefore, given the distinctive nature of the two, the author finds it farcical for the findings of a departmental proceeding to have a bearing on the criminal proceedings. Even in Iqbal Singh Marwah v. Meenakshi Marwah, the Supreme Court had held that the findings of a civil court will neither have a bearing on nor be binding upon the proceedings of a criminal court.


Conflicting Jurisprudence


On the question of whether exoneration in departmental proceedings would automatically terminate the criminal proceedings, the Supreme Court itself seems to have a divided opinion. The High Courts have followed a similar suit. Inconsistency in judicial decisions runs counter to both fairness towards litigants and uniformity in judicial decision-making, resultantly making the doctrine of precedent unachievable.


In the P.S. Rajya case, the question of law that arose for consideration was to determine whether the criminal proceedings against the appellant could continue under Section 5(2) read with Section 5(1)(e) of the Prevention of Corruption Act 1947 despite his exoneration in the departmental proceedings through the report of the Central Vigilance Commission. The decision was in the negative, i.e., it was held that once a person is exonerated in departmental proceedings, criminal prosecution against him cannot be continued on identical charges. Further, it reiterated the case scenarios from State of Haryana and Others v. Ch. Bhajan Lal and Others under which the court could exercise its power under Article 226 read with Section 482 of the CrPC to quash an FIR for the purposes of preventing the abuse of process of court or to reach the ends of justice.


The Bombay High Court, in the case of Keshav v. State of Maharashtra, relying on the Surendranath case, quashed the FIR basis the fact that the accused had been exonerated in the disciplinary proceedings conducted on identical/similar charges. Since the results of the departmental proceedings were in favour of the accused, the very basis on which the criminal complaint was filed was quashed. Further, it was held that if the criminal proceedings were continued, it would amount to an abuse of the process of court.


Per contra, in Rajendra Kumar Gautam v. State of Madhya Pradesh, where the High Court of Madhya Pradesh was entrusted to answer the question on whether the results of a departmental inquiry would preclude the prosecution from filing an FIR, it was observed that despite the accused being exonerated in the departmental inquiry, the FIR could not be quashed. It was noted that in case of exoneration on merits, the subsequent quashing of FIR was not a thumb rule.


Similarly, in State of N.C.T. of Delhi v. Ajay Kumar Tyagi (Ajay Tyagi), the Supreme Court had reiterated the stance taken in State v. M. Krishna Mohan (Krishna Mohan), and observed that quashing of FIR was not an ipso facto outcome of exoneration in departmental proceedings. Further adding to the same, it clarified that while it is true that when the very basis on which the prosecution was initiated is set aside by a higher authority, the prosecution must not be continued with. However, this rule is not applicable in cases concerning departmental and criminal proceedings given that a criminal trial and a departmental proceeding are conducted by two separate entities and are not in the same hierarchy.


An important observation made in the Krishna Mohan judgment was that the P. S. Rajya judgement was based on the peculiar facts of the case and as such, could not have been taken to be an “authority” for the purposes of proposing that exoneration in departmental proceedings would ipso facto result in acquittal in criminal case.


Therefore, in a nutshell, while some judgments propose that if the charges are not sufficiently backed by evidence in an inquiry demanding a lower standard of proof, they would certainly not be supported by evidence under an inquiry requiring a higher standard of proof; on the other hand, others have highlighted the distinctive nature of two to keep them separate.


Comments


From the above discussion, the author has attempted to make it clear that the position of law on the subject is, indeed, unrefined. It is further compounded by the inconsistency in the approach of the highest court of India – the Supreme Court.

When the Supreme Court of India takes a contrasting view on a particular question of law, the courts that are subordinate to it are required to make a preference between those views. Thus, when confronted, one view is to be bound by the judgment that was rendered later in time, while the other view is to choose the one that befits the factual circumstances of the case at hand. The High Court of Orissa in Dr. Minaketan Pani v. State of Orissa held that the ruling in Surendranath, having been rendered later in time, would prevail. On the other hand, the High Court of Jammu and Kashmir in Sarwan Singh v. State, following the suit of Ajay Tyagi, did not exonerate the petitioner from criminal proceedings despite him being absolved of all charges in the disciplinary enquiry.


While it may seem that the answer lies in one of the two judgements of Surendranath and Ajay Tyagi, it so appears that courts have (see here and here) highlighted the infirmities in them, too. While Ajay Tyagi was per incuriam since it had failed to take into consideration the Coordinate Bench ruling in Kejriwal which it was supposed to be bound by, the Surendranath judgment had not engaged with the Ajay Tyagi judgment. Sinceper incuriam judgments do not have a precedent value, courts must, therefore, cautiously adjudicate matters that cite such cases as leading references.


In conclusion, this inconsistent position requires to be clarified through a decision of a larger bench of the Supreme Court of India, but till then, the position will remain muddled and every next decision on this issue will only dilute the discourse.

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