The Supreme Court observed that the judgment of acquittal in the criminal proceeding must be read in its entirety while examining its effect on validity of disciplinary proceedings against an employee based on same evidence.

The Court set aside disciplinary action against the Constable of the Rajasthan Armed Constabulary and ordered his reinstatement with back wages. The Constable was accused of falsifying his date of birth to get the employment. The disciplinary panel had found that he was guilty and dismissed him from his employment.

The Bench comprising Justice JK Maheshwari and Justice KV Viswanathan observed, "The conclusion that the acquittal in the criminal proceeding was after full consideration of the prosecution evidence and that the prosecution miserably failed to prove the charge can only be arrived at after a reading of the judgment in its entirety. The court in judicial review is obliged to examine the substance of the judgment and not go by the form of expression used."

Advocate Adarsh Priyadarshi appeared for the Appellant and Advocate Vishal Meghwal appeared for the State.

Ram Lal, a Constable with the Rajasthan Armed Constabulary, was accused of altering his date of birth in his school records to project himself as having attained majority at the time of recruitment. A departmental proceeding was initiated against him and he was dismissed from service. He was also convicted of the offence under Section 420 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860 (IPC) and sentenced to three years' imprisonment. However, the Appellate Court acquitted him.

Lal filed a writ petition in the High Court seeking to quash the dismissal order and reinstatement to service. The High Court dismissed the writ petition, holding that the standard of proof in a criminal proceeding and departmental proceeding is different and that there was no infirmity in the dismissal order. Aggrieved, Ram Lal approached the Supreme Court by way of Civil Appeal challenging the order.

The Court framed the following issues:

a) Whether the dismissal of the appellant from service pursuant to the departmental enquiry was justified?

b) On the facts of the case, what is the effect of the acquittal, ordered by the Appellate Judge in the criminal trial, on the order of dismissal passed in the departmental enquiry?

The Court emphasized that an employee's acquittal in a criminal proceeding doesn't automatically grant reinstatement in their job. However, if the charges in both the departmental enquiry and the criminal court are similar, and the evidence, witnesses, and circumstances align, the acquittal can be considered in a judicial review. The Bench noted that Courts have the discretion to grant relief if they deem the findings in the disciplinary proceedings to be unjust, unfair, or oppressive.

The Court added, “We are conscious of the fact that a writ court’s power to review the order of the Disciplinary Authority is very limited. The scope of enquiry is only to examine whether the decision-making process is legitimate. [See State Bank of India vs. A.G.D. Reddy, 2023:INSC:766 = 2023 (11) Scale 530]. As part of that exercise, the courts exercising power of judicial review are entitled to consider whether the findings of the Disciplinary Authority have ignored material evidence and if it so finds, courts are not powerless to interfere”.

However, the Bench noted that the disciplinary authority overlooked crucial evidence, and its findings lacked support from the available records. Specifically, the Court observed that the deposition of Prosecution witness Raj Singh, the 8th class mark sheet, and the original mark sheet presented by the defence were crucial pieces of evidence that the disciplinary authority failed to consider. This failure was deemed a violation of natural justice.

Furthermore, the Court cautioned against treating phrases like "benefit of doubt" and "honourably acquitted" as mere expressions, emphasizing the need for substantive consideration. The acquittal, resulting from a meticulous examination of the evidence, indicated the prosecution's failure to prove the charges.

Additionally, the Bench observed that the Appellant's acquittal in the criminal proceedings was based on the prosecution's inability to substantiate the charges. Given the identical nature of the criminal charges and the disciplinary proceedings, including the same evidence, witnesses, and circumstances, the Court also deemed the latter untenable.

Furthermore, the Bench noted that a fact is to be 'disproved' when, upon evaluating the presented evidence, the court either believes the fact does not exist or deems its non-existence highly probable, warranting prudent action based on the assumption of non-existence. Conversely, a fact is deemed 'not proved' when it neither meets the standard of being proven nor disproven.

As held by this Court, a fact is said to be “disproved” when, after considering the matters before it, the court either believes that it does not exist or considers its non-existence so probable that a prudent man ought, under the circumstances of the particular case, to act upon the supposition that it does not exist. A fact is said to be “not proved” when it is neither “proved” nor “disproved”, the Bench noted.

The Court noted that the 10th standard mark sheet produced during the enquiry belonged to another individual named Ram Lal. The Court observed that the Appellant sought employment based on his 8th standard mark sheet. Consequently, the Court held that the termination order, the Appellate Authority's decision, and subsequent orders refusing reconsideration and review were illegal and untenable.

Accordingly, the Court allowed the Appeal, set aside the impugned order and directed for reinstatement of the Appellant with 50% back wages.

Cause Title: Ram Lal v State of Rajasthan & Ors. (2023 INSC 1047)

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