New Delhi: The Supreme Court has ordered the reinstatement of a sessions court judge who was discharged from his job, holding that one wrong order did not “warrant the initiation of disciplinary proceedings”, unless there was evidence of “extraneous considerations or ulterior motive”.
The bench of justices U.U. Lalit and Vineet Saran noted that any judicial officer could make a mistake, and that negligence should not be equated with misconduct. The bench further noted that high courts should provide “proper guidance” to lower court judges if there were errors in an order as long as there was no “corrupt motive”.
The Supreme Court judgment, delivered Tuesday, pertained to the case of Abhay Jain, a sessions court judge in Rajasthan, who was discharged from his position in 2016 for his alleged misconduct in granting bail to a former municipal corporation chairman in a corruption case the previous year.
The Rajasthan High Court had objected to Jain’s order and ordered a departmental inquiry against him on suspicion that he had acted out of “ulterior or oblique motives and for extraneous considerations”.
After he was discharged in 2016 on grounds of unsatisfactory performance, Jain filed a writ petition in the Rajasthan High Court asking, among other things, for quashing of the inquiry proceedings and for his reinstatement with consequential benefits. The HC, however, dismissed the writ petition. It was after this that Jain petitioned the Supreme Court.
SC gives relief
The Supreme Court in its Tuesday judgment noted that the Rajasthan High Court ordered an inquiry into Jain’s alleged misconduct and ended up firing him for his unsatisfactory performance. However, Jain’s annual confidential reports (ACRs) were not communicated to him.
There was no intimation to Jain about his performance being unsatisfactory and, hence, he never got an opportunity to improve, the SC noted.
Quashing the discharge order that was approved by the HC, the apex court directed the judge’s re-appointment with all consequential benefits, including continuity of service and seniority. However, the court clarified that he would be entitled to only 50 per cent back-wages, payable within four months.
The controversial bail order
The genesis of the action taken against Jain dates back to 2015 when he was presiding over an anti-corruption court in Bharatpur. He was assigned a case registered under the Prevention of Corruption Act involving then-chairman of the municipal corporation, K.K. Jalia, a police constable, Alimuddin, and another co-accused, Irfan.
Arrested in December 2014, the trio had individually applied for bail at different times before the court. Their first bail petitions were taken up by Jain’s predecessor, who dismissed them.
Jain heard the matter for the first time when the charge sheet was filed against the three accused in February 2015, shortly after he was posted to the court.
While Jalia moved the HC for bail, Alimuddin applied for his release before Jain’s court. Both the petitions were dismissed. In March, Jalia filed a fresh bail plea in Jain’s court. And, while his bail plea was pending, the HC released the other co-accused, Irfan and Alimuddin, on bail in April 2015.
After multiple hearings, and after the police were given several opportunities to apprise the court about their request seeking sanction to prosecute Jalia in the case, Jain finally released him on bail on 27 April 2015.
A day later, the police placed the approval to prosecute Jalia in court and immediately thereafter, the HC summoned the case records.
Jain was called for an explanation by the then-chief justice of the Rajasthan HC. He was charged with granting bail to Jalia, ignoring the two-month-old HC order that denied him similar relief.
In his response, Jain admitted he noticed the fact of dismissal of the bail from the memo of the bail application. However, since the order was not produced before him, he assumed there was a change in circumstances.
Moreover, he explained, the accused had spent four months in jail and in the absence of prosecution sanction, there was no clarity as to when the trial in the case would commence.
Further, he informed the HC that the two co-accused had already been granted bail by the HC.
The chief justice rejected Jain’s explanation and directed the initiation of a departmental inquiry under the rules governing judicial officers.
It was concluded that Jain should have abstained from granting bail to Jalia and — without granting him a personal hearing — the inquiry judge rejected his preliminary objections. In the meantime, the full-court of the HC discharged Jain from service even as the proceedings were pending.
Aggrieved, Jain challenged his discharge before the HC, but his petition was dismissed. The HC acknowledged Jain’s argument that there was no written complaint against him, but approved the administrative order on the premise there must have been some oral complaint against him.
In the Supreme Court, the bench contended that Jain’s discharge was not based on “unsatisfactory performance,” a requirement under the service rules, but was based on an inquiry initiated against him. The HC defended its decision on the ground it was “entitled” to discontinue an employee’s services against whom allegations are made.
What SC said
Contrary to the HC verdict, the SC stated the discharge order was punitive in nature because it failed to establish misconduct on the judge’s part.
On the merits of the bail order that became a reason for Jain’s discharge, the SC said there was a valid reason to grant bail to Jalia. It noted the HC had already given bail to the two other co-accused.
“The appellant was competent and well within his right to grant bail to the accused in discharge of his judicial functions,” the SC said.
At best, the court added, the judge “may have been guilty of negligence towards not carefully going through the case file”, but that this could not be treated as “misconduct”.
(Edited by Asavari Singh)