Sunday 28 April 2024

Supreme Court: Enquiry under POSH Act is to be conducted afresh if there is violation of principle of natural justice

 In fact, the glaring defects and the procedural lapses in the inquiry proceedings took place only thereafter, in the month of May, 2009, when 12 hearings, most of them back-to-back, were conducted by the Committee at a lightning speed. On the one hand, the Committee kept on forwarding to the Appellant, depositions of some more complainants received later on and those of other witnesses and called upon him to furnish his reply and on the other hand, it directed him to come prepared to cross-examine the said complainants and witnesses as also record his further deposition, all in a span of one week. Even if the medical grounds taken by the Appellant seemed suspect, the Committee ought to have given him reasonable time to prepare his defence, more so when his request for being represented through a lawyer had already been declined. It was all this undue anxiety that had led to short-circuiting the inquiry proceedings conducted by the Committee and damaging the very fairness of the process. {Para 73}

74. For the above reasons, the Appellant cannot be faulted for questioning the process and its outcome. There is no doubt that matters of this nature are sensitive and have to be handled with care. The Respondents had received as many as seventeen complaints from students levelling serious allegations of sexual harassment against the Appellant. But that would not be a ground to give a complete go by to the procedural fairness of the inquiry required to be conducted, more so when the inquiry could lead to imposition of major penalty proceedings. When the legitimacy of the decision taken is dependent on the fairness of the process and the process adopted itself became questionable, then the decision arrived at cannot withstand judicial scrutiny and is wide open to interference. It is not without reason that it is said that a fair procedure alone can guarantee a fair outcome. In this case, the anxiety of the Committee of being fair to the victims of sexual harassment, has ended up causing them greater harm.

75. This Court is, therefore, of the opinion that the proceedings conducted by the Committee with effect from the month of May, 2009, fell short of the "as far as practicable" norm prescribed in the relevant Rules. The discretion vested in the Committee for conducting the inquiry has been exercised improperly, defying the principles of natural justice. As a consequence thereof, the impugned judgment upholding the decision taken by the EC of terminating the services of the Appellant, duly endorsed by the Appellate Authority cannot be sustained and is accordingly quashed and set aside with the following directions:

(i) The matter is remanded back to the Complaints Committee to take up the inquiry proceeding as they stood on 5th May 2009.

(ii) The Committee shall afford adequate opportunity to the Appellant to defend himself.

(iii) The Appellant shall not seek any adjournment of the proceedings.

(iv) A Report shall be submitted by the Committee to the Disciplinary Authority for appropriate orders.

(v) Having regard to the long passage of time, the Respondents are directed to complete the entire process within three months from the first date of hearing fixed by the Committee.

(vi) The procedure to be followed by the Committee and the Disciplinary Authority shall be guided by the principles of natural justice.

(vii) The Rules applied will be as were applicable at the relevant point of time.

(viii) The decision taken by the Committee and the Disciplinary Authority shall be purely on merits and in accordance with law.

(ix) The Appellant will not be entitled to claim immediate reinstatement or back wages till the inquiry is completed and a decision is taken by the Disciplinary Authority.


Civil Appeal No. 2482 of 2014

Decided On: 12.05.2023

Aureliano Fernandes Vs. State of Goa and Ors.

Hon'ble Judges/Coram:

A.S. Bopanna and Hima Kohli, JJ.

Author: Hima Kohli, J.

Citation: AIR 2023 SC 2485,MANU/SC/0572/2023.

Read full Judgment here: Click here.

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