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SC discipline leash on courts

New Delhi, Aug. 18: The Supreme Court has ruled that courts should not interfere with punishments imposed by disciplinary authorities on delinquent employees unless such penalties were shockingly disproportionate or defied logic.

A bench of Justices J. Chelameshwar and A.K. Sikri said this “limited scope” of judicial review is “permissible” only when the punishment handed down is “totally irrational”, “outrageous in defiance of logic” or “shockingly disproportionate” to the offence committed.

Merely because a court thinks a lesser punishment would have been more appropriate “cannot be a ground to interfere with the discretion of the departmental authorities”, the bench said in a recent judgment as it upheld an appeal filed by public sector insurance major LIC.

The company, which had penalised an employee for fraudulent practices, had challenged a Madras High Court decision to reduce the punishment.

The employee was alleged to have tampered with the premium position and other records pertaining to 17 insurance policies, resulting in a substantial loss to the corporation.

A probe by the enquiry officer found the employee guilty. Based on the officer’s report, the corporation’s disciplinary authority showcaused the employee, proposing recovery of the loss amount and reduction in her basic pay to the lowest time scale as punishment.

The employee had then moved the high court. A division bench upheld the punishment of recovery of the loss amount but set aside the reduction in pay scale. Instead, it ordered withholding of one increment under Regulation 39(1)(b) of the LIC of India (Staff) Regulations, 1960.

The apex court set aside the high court’s order, saying tampering with records was a serious charge and added to the gravity of the offence when coupled with its financial implications.

“Even for such a severe charge, the disciplinary authority had inflicted the penalty of reduction in basic pay to the lowest time scale. The high court has not even stated as to how this penalty was bad in law and simply labelled it to be “harsh”, that too with no reasons.

“While intermeddling with this penalty, the only epithet used is ‘to secure the ends of justice’. In the absence of any exercise undertaken by the high court that how it perceived such a penalty to be ‘harsh’, there was no reason to interfere with the same.

“Even otherwise, we do not find such a penalty at all to be shockingly disproportionate having regard to the very serious charge levelled against the respondent,” the apex court said.

The court said the principle of proportionality comes into play when a punishment is found to be outrageously disproportionate to the nature of the charge. “We are of the opinion that the high court transgressed its limits of judicial review by… assuming the role of… departmental appellate authority, which is not permissible in law,” the bench said.