When trouble comes, it comes from all directions. Such is the case of a person when faced simultaneously with a criminal charge and an independent internal enquiry from his/her employer. In case the employee
is a government servant, this internal enquiry is called as departmental enquiry. This is an example of a real-life situation where criminal and civil law meets and a bird-eye view of the conflicting principles of criminal jurisprudence, espoused by all democratic countries, and capitalistic efficiency, without which a company/department could not justify its presence in the system, is necessary.
The first question that arises is whether a man can be tried and punished twice for the same offence, once by the state and then by his employer. Can simultaneous proceedings, criminal and domestic run for
accused/delinquent employee arising from the same facts, when can the proceedings be stayed, what happens if the court of law and departmental enquiry arrives at different conclusions about the guilt/innocence of the said employee and if they do, how will the decision in one proceeding affect the other, these are the questions we must ponder.
Scope and objectives
Supreme Court of India has consistently held in a plethora of cases that the two are completely separate proceedings. They have different objectives and operate in different fields. One is initiated by the State against the delinquent employees in criminal court and other i.e. departmental enquiry, which is initiated by the employer under the Labour/Service Laws/Rules, against the delinquent employees.
The only question which is important in a departmental enquiry is whether the conduct of the employee, is unbecoming of the employee or in case of some minor transgression does it deserves some lesser
punishment. It is to maintain discipline and efficiency in service. Whereas, in a criminal case the requirement is the fulfilment of the ingredients that define the crime. Criminal proceedings are initiated either in case of omission of public duty, the accused owe to the society or commission of an act which violates a law.
The domestic enquiry need not follow the rigid procedures as laid down in the criminal procedure code; they are required to follow only the basic principles of natural justice like giving reasonable opportunity to the delinquent employee to defend himself etc.
The standard of proof in a domestic enquiry is also distinct from a criminal proceeding. It is the preponderance of probability in the former while the standard in the latter is beyond reasonable doubt. (BHEL v. M. Mani: Karnataka SRTC v. M.G. Vittal Rao)
Can The Two roceedings run simultaneously?
The settled legal position is that both the proceedings can run concurrently given the innate differences in their purpose and methodology (Karnataka Power Transmission Corp. Ltd. v. C Nagaraju).
Although, there could be circumstances where continuing the domestic enquiry would seriously prejudice the defense of the accused/delinquent employee in the criminal trial. However, no straightjacket formula has
been laid down by the courts to decide the question of stay of internal enquiry; this will depend on the facts and circumstances of each case.The burden of proof is on the accused/delinquent employee to show
prejudice will be caused to him if stay in the internal enquiry is not granted.
The SC has in Capt. M Paul Antony v. Bharat Gold Mines Ltd., mentioned some of the factual situations that could be considered while deciding if prejudice is caused by them running simultaneously. The
only exception carved out was whether complicated questions of facts and law are involved in that case, this was based on the principle laid down by SC in Delhi Cloth & General Mills Ltd. v. Kushal Bhan.
This in turn will depend on the gravity of the offence, nature of the case launched against the employee, evidence and materials collected during the investigation. These factors have to be judiciously balanced with another conflicting consideration, that is, departmental proceedings cannot be put into abeyance indefinitely. If an employee is guilty of misconduct then action should be taken against him and if not then his honour should be restored as soon as possible.
And since the committee conducting the domestic enquiry cannot be held as a ‘court of competent jurisdidction’, the rule of ‘autrefois acquit autrefois convict’ embodied in s. 300 of CrPC and/or Article 20(2) of the constitution, would be of no help to the delinquent employee to shield him from either of the proceedings.
Does the decision in one proceeding affects the other?
The standard of proof required in a criminal case is “beyond reasonable doubt” this is greatly more than the standard of “preponderance of probability” required in case of an internal enquiry, a type of civil wrong. Hence, the acquittal of the accused employee in a criminal trial will not ipso facto result in his getting a clean chit from the departmental enquiry. It does not preclude a departmental inquiry against the delinquent officer. The disciplinary authority is not bound by the judgment of the criminal court if the evidence that is
produced in the departmental inquiry is different from that produced during the criminal trial. The enquiry should proceed unfettered from the findings of the criminal trial and should base its findings on the facts and evidence led before it (UOI v. Bihari Lal Sidhana).
More interesting is the situation that arises when the enquiry held by the employer holds the delinquent employee innocent while the criminal proceeding is still pending. In the case of P S Rajya v. State of Bihar,
an employee was exonerated by an inquiry held by CVC and the exoneration was subsequently accepted by UPSC as well. SC quashed the criminal proceedings in that case based on the peculiar circumstances
arising in the case. However, SC has not adopted this path as a matter of course; in Superintendent of Police (C.B.I) v. Deepak Chowdharyit held that departmental exoneration by the disciplinary authority is
not relevant. What is necessary and material is whether the facts collected during the investigation would constitute the offence for which the sanction has been sought for. This approach has been followed
by various high courts as well, distinguishing the P S Rajya case. West Bengal HC in Susanta Kumar Dey v. Union of India and Karnataka HC in V.M. Karekar v. State of Karnataka refused to quash criminal proceedings based on exoneration report of internal enquiry.
However the tide has turned back again. A 3 judge bench of the Supreme Court recently in case of Ashoo Surendranath Tewari v. The Deputy Superintendent of Police, EOW, following the judgement of P S Rajya (supra) discharged an accused bank employee from criminal charges based on the report of CVC. The rationale being that the continued prosecution of the accused,facing charges stemming from the same set of facts and circumstances,once exonerated by the competent authority, would amount to abuse of the
process of the court. In my opinion, although the court has not acknowledged the general principle that both the proceedings are for different objects, it has created ample room for indirectly challenging the merits of the exoneration of the domestic enquiry by stating an exception to this rule, namely, If the exoneration was not on merits but due to technical and procedural reasons, then the criminal proceedings shall continue. Apart from this exception, in my humble opinion, it is always open for prosecution to question the malafide of the domestic enquiry, exonerating the delinquent employee, to the extent judicially
Provisions of CrPC provides for appeals and revision in criminal matters, apart from the omnipotent Art. 136 and 226 of the constitution.In case of judicial review of a departmental enquiry, the scope is very limited. SC in Associated Cement Co. v. Workmen held that domestic enquiries must be conducted honestly and bona fide and in accordance with principles of natural justice, care must be taken to see that these enquiries are not empty formalities. In State of Bihar v. Phulpari Kumari, SC held that Courts cannot interfere with the order of dismissal of the delinquent employee by re-evaluating the evidence and taking a view different from that of the disciplinary authority, which was based on the findings of the inquiry officer. Scope of judicial interference is limited to perverse decisions, that is, an order based on no evidence and checking the adherence to principles of natural justice.
The famous Blackstone’s ratio “It is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer” forms the jurisprudential basis of putting the standard of proof “beyond reasonable doubt” in criminal
cases. This sound jurisprudence has withstood the test of time however, this system will inevitably lead to numerous culprits escaping punishment. But when the stakes are not as high as depriving someone of his personal liberty and an error of judgement will, at worst, result in dismissal from service, “prepondenrance of probability” becomes more attractive standard to follow. This is the essence of the all the differences between criminal proceedings and civil enquiry, which is further exacerbated by adopting different procedures for trial, for admissibility of evidences and for the latitutde of judicial review. Both the proceedings best serve their respective purpose and the common thread connecting both are principles of natural justice, deviation from which will viatiate them.
About the Author
Bhaskar is a practicing advocate enrolled in the Bar council of Delhi. He is interested in scholarship that bridges the gap between legal academia and the actual practice of law.