Departmental proceedings cannot be suspended indefinitely or delayed unduly due to the pendency of the criminal case

Supreme Court

Supreme Court: In the matter where the Court was deciding the question as to whether disciplinary proceedings can be initiated before the closure of recording of prosecution evidence in the criminal case, based on the same facts, the bench of T.S. Thakur, CJ and A.M. Khanwilkar, JJ held that the pendency of the criminal case cannot be the sole basis to suspend the disciplinary proceedings initiated against the respondent for an indefinite period.

In the present case, the criminal trial against the respondent was pending for around 10 years and the Chhattisgarh High Court had stayed the disciplinary proceedings initiated by the appellant bank until the completion of the same based on the reasoning that the respondent may suffer disadvantage and prejudice if she was compelled to disclose her defence in the departmental proceedings, which is likely to be used in the criminal case pending against her. Disagreeing with the aforementioned view of the High Court, the Court said that It is well-settled that there is no legal bar to the conduct of the disciplinary proceedings and criminal trial simultaneously. However, no straightjacket formula can be spelt out and the Court has to keep in mind the broad approach to be adopted in such matters on case to case basis.

In one of the clauses of the Memorandum of Settlement it was mentioned that “if within the pendency of the proceedings thus instituted is put on trial such proceedings shall be stayed pending the completion of the trial.” The Court said that the term “completion of the trial” thereat, must be construed as completion of the trial within a reasonable time frame. This clause cannot come to the aid of the delinquent employee – who has been named as an accused in a criminal case and more so is party to prolongation of the trial.

Pendency of criminal trial for around 10 years, by no means, can be said to be a reasonable time frame to withhold the disciplinary proceedings. The Court took this view on the principle underlying the former part of the same clause, which envisages that if the Authority which has to start the prosecution refuses/fails to do so within one year from the commission of the offence, the departmental action can proceed. The Court, hence, held that the remedy of writ being an equitable jurisdiction and keeping in mind the larger public interests especially in cases of involvement of the employees of the Public Sector Banks in offence of breach of trust and embezzlement, the principle laid down in Stanzen Toyotetsu India Private Limited vs. Girish V., (2014) 3 SCC 636, where it was held that the departmental proceedings cannot be suspended indefinitely or delayed unduly, should be applied. [State Bank of India v. Neelam Nag, 2016 SCC OnLine SC 946, decided on 16.09.2016]

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