The Supreme Court on legality of parallel departmental and criminal court proceedings

The Supreme Court on legality of parallel departmental and criminal court proceedings

The Supreme Court on 8th April 2019, in the case of The Secretary, Lucy Sequeira Trust And Anr. v. Kailash Ramesh Tandel held that departmental proceeding and proceedings in a criminal court are completely different as the purpose, the standard of proof and the approach are all completely different. The initiation of the process in a departmental proceeding, in case of alleged charges of sexual harassment charges cannot be said to be amounting to contempt of court even if the criminal proceedings were pending before a judicial forum.

Facts: Kailash Ramesh Tandel (“Respondent”) was an assistant teacher in a school run by the Secretary, Lucy Sequeira Trust And Anr. (“Appellant”) A student filed a written complaint and an FIR against him alleging an offense under Section 509 of the Indian Penal Code (“IPC”). Another complaint was raised by a different student and an FIR under Section 354(a) of IPC and Section 9(f), 10 and 11 of the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012 (“POCSO”) was lodged against the Respondent. The school being unhappy with his conduct suspended him pending inquiry and addressed a letter to the Education Inspector seeking approval of the suspension order. An Inquiry Committee (“Committee”) was instituted by the Appellant having the members including Convener (nominee of Appellant), Nominee of Respondent and a State Awardee Teacher (independent member). Post inquiry, the Convener submitted a report recommending termination of Respondent, which showed examination of 12 witnesses, out of which 5 witnesses were girls from the school. However, the Nominee of Respondent and State Awardee Teacher (“the Dissenting Members”) refused to sign the report stating that guilt of the Respondent would be conclusively dealt with in the pending criminal proceedings and any interim decision would amount to contempt of court. The matter was then considered by the Appellant who passed a resolution terminating the service of the Respondent.

The Respondent filed an appeal against his termination under Section 9 of the Maharashtra Employees of Private Schools Act, 1977 (for short ‘the Act’) before the School Tribunal, Mumbai where the Tribunal remitted the matter for fresh consideration before the Committee since the Dissenting Members had not given any firm decision except stating that they should not proceed with the inquiry as it would amount to contempt of court. The Tribunal relied upon an earlier decision of the Supreme Court wherein it was held that if an inquiry was found to be faulty, the matter should be remitted to the disciplinary authority to follow the procedure from the stage at which the fault was pointed out. Aggrieved by this decision, the Appellant approached the Bombay High Court which upheld the order passed by the Tribunal. Hence, pursuant to which this appeal has been filed by the Appellant before the Supreme Court.

Arguments: The Appellant’s lawyer contended that 5 girls have given statements before the Committee and two of them have filed criminal proceedings against the Respondent. The girls were in the age range of 13-14 years and that it would be hazardous to have a teacher like him in the school. The approach of the two Dissenting Members was completely incorrect and since they had not given any conclusive findings, the management was competent to take a decision which was not only consistent with the findings of the Convenor but also supported by facts on record and was arrived at in a transparent manner.

Respondent: The Respondent’s lawyer stated that the State Awardee Teacher, a completely dispassionate and impartial observer had concluded that the inquiry must await the conclusion of proceedings in criminal cases. There was no justification for the management to issue an order of termination.

Ratio: The Court noted that in both FIRs, investigation was undertaken and chargesheets were filed. Thus, the allegations made in the FIR were found sustainable in the police investigation and the Respondent is presently accused of having committed said offences. Moreover, not just two girl students, but there were other students as well who had levelled allegations against him.

The Court observed that “It is well settled that a departmental proceeding and proceedings in a criminal court are completely different. The purpose is different, the standard of proof is different and the approach is also different. The initiation of the process in a departmental proceeding, specially on charges with which we are concerned in the present matter can never be said to be amounting to contempt of court even if the criminal proceedings were pending” The Court further opined that the allegations made against the Respondent were of such level and dimension that an immediate action on the departmental front was required to be undertaken and had to be completely independent. Whether any criminal trial was pending or not would not be having any bearing on the pending issue before the Committee.

Held: The management had not taken any hasty action in initiating the proceedings against the Respondent. If his Nominee and the State Awardee Teacher had not given any final decision with clarity, since in their view it would have amounted to contempt of court, the Appellant was justified in relying upon the conclusions drawn by the Convener of the Committee and subsequently passing an order of termination. The approach adopted by the management was not only fair and transparent but had also kept in mind what is expected of the management where allegations of sexual harassment of adolescent girls are in issue.

Hence, appeal was allowed, setting aside the decision of the Tribunal as well as the High Court and affirming the order of termination passed by the Appellant.

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