The Madras High Court has recently reiterated that conducting disciplinary proceedings without affording individuals a fair opportunity to present their defence and without providing essential documents for them to contest the case would contravene fundamental principles of natural justice.

The Single Judge Bench of Justice L.Victoria Gowri was dealing with a Writ Petition filed under Article 226 of the Constitution by a school headmaster who was facing withholding of various monetary benefits, including monthly salary, annual increment, and provident fund amounts, stemming from an alleged dispute with the education officer.

Noting that the disciplinary proceedings were initiated without providing a fair opportunity for defence and essential documents for case presentation, the Court noted, "I have no hesitation to observe that the sixth respondent and seventh and eight respondents are trying to initiate disciplinary proceedings against the petitioner violating all principles of natural justice without giving appropriate opportunity to submit her defence and without furnishing necessary documents for her to defend her case. That apart the appointment of Enquiry Officer within a period of seven days from the date of issuance of charge memo from 12.07.2023 without giving ample time for the petitioner to submit her explanation also vitiate the entire disciplinary proceedings."

The petitioner, appointed as a Secondary Grade Teacher in 1995 and later promoted to Headmaster alleged personal animosity from the education officer, leading to the denial of various benefits such as monthly salary, annual increment, provident fund amounts, and Headmaster arrears. Despite the petitioner's multiple representations, the situation escalated when a memo was issued containing vague allegations, prompting the petitioner to seek necessary documents for clarification.

The Petitioner had also apprised the Court that despite a previous writ petition directing the resolution of the Petitioner's concerns, not all benefits were disbursed. While on the other hand, the education officer in a contentious manner allegedly harboured personal grudges against the petitioner. The Respondents also submitted that since the said allegation against the petitioner is against the Code of Conduct, the same required a proper enquiry to be conducted by the disciplinary authorities and hence, the Petitioner was placed under suspension.

Noting the submissions made, the Court observed that the Respondent authorities breached the principles of natural justice and accordingly instructed a fair opportunity for the petitioner to respond to charges, emphasizing completion of the entire process within two months. Citing legal precedents, the court underscored the necessity of granting reasonable time and furnishing necessary documents to the accused during disciplinary proceedings.

The High Court further referred to a judgement of the Apex Court in Uco Bank vs Rajendra Shankar Shukla reported in 2018 14 SCC 92, where the Court has held as follows: “access to justice is a valuable right available to every person, even to a criminal, and indeed free legal representation is provided even to a criminal. In the case of a departmental inquiry, the delinquent is at best guilty of a misconduct but that is no ground to deny access to fair opportunity to defend, denial of fair opportunity would amount to violation of principles of natural justice.”

Underscoring the importance of upholding natural justice in disciplinary proceedings, safeguarding individuals' rights and ensuring a transparent and just legal process, the Court accordingly allowed the Writ Petition and quashed the order.

"Enquiry Officer if appointed, is directed to give an appropriate opportunity to the petitioner to participate in the disciplinary proceedings and defend her case and thereafter, submit an enquiry report to the sixth respondent school. The sixth respondent school is directed to furnish a copy of the said enquiry report, if any to the petitioner immediately on the date of receipt of the same by the School for her explanation giving 15 days further time for her to respond and thereafter, pass appropriate orders in accordance with law. The entire exercise has to be completed within two months from the date of receipt of copy of this order", stated the Court in its order.

Cause Title: M.Pathimuthu Hajara v. Director of Elementary Education & Ors. [W.P.(MD)No.18042 of 2023]

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