The Supreme Court observed that dismissal of a workman by his/her employer cannot be interfered with merely on the ground that it did not conduct a disciplinary enquiry, if the latter could justify the action before the Labour Court.
Where an employer has failed to make an enquiry before dismissal or discharge of a workman, it is open for him to justify the action before the Labour Court by leading evidence before it, the Court said.
In this case, an Assistant Teacher in Jai Bharat Junior High School, Haridwar, was dismissed by the Management on the ground of continued absence from service. Later, answering the reference, the Labour Court held that the claimant was not entitled to get any relief as there was sufficient evidence adduced by the Management to prove her continued absence from the School. The High Court, allowed the writ petition filed against Labour Court Award, on the ground that no enquiry was conducted, or disciplinary proceedings initiated regarding the abandonment of service by the employee.
In appeal, the bench comprising Justices L. Nageswara Rao, Navin Sinha and Indu Malhotra, noted that a full opportunity was given by the Labour Court to the parties to lead evidence, both oral and documentary, to substantiate their respective case. Referring to some judgments on this aspect, the bench observed:
This Court has in a catena of decisions held that where an employer has failed to make an enquiry before dismissal or discharge of a workman, it is open for him to justify the action before the Labour Court by leading evidence before it. The entire matter would be open before the tribunal, which would have the jurisdiction to satisfy itself on the evidence adduced by the parties whether the dismissal or discharge was justified.
Referring to evidence on record, the bench held that the School has established that the Teacher had abandoned her service in 1997, and had never reported back for work. Restoring the Labour Court Award, the bench said:
The High Court has not even adverted to the said evidence, and has disposed of the Writ Petition on the sole ground that the School had not conducted a disciplinary enquiry before discharging the respondent from service. The School has led sufficient evidence before the Labour Court to prove that the Respondent had abandoned her service from 01.07.1997 when she got married, and moved to another District, which was not denied by her in her evidence. The record of the School reveals that she was not in employment of the School since July 1997.
The judgment refers to following observations made in Workmen of Firestone Tyre & Rubber Co. of India (P) Ltd. v. The Management of Firestone Tyre & Rubber Co. of India (P) Ltd and Other (1973) 1 SCC 813:
- The right to take disciplinary action and to decide upon the quantum of punishment are mainly managerial functions, but if a dispute is referred to a Tribunal, the latter has power to see if action of the employer is justified.
- Before imposing the punishment, an employer is expected to conduct a proper enquiry in accordance with the provisions of the Standing Orders, if applicable, and principles of natural justice. The enquiry should not be an empty formality.
- When a proper enquiry has been held by an employer, and the finding of misconduct is a plausible conclusion flowing from the evidence, adduced at the said enquiry, the Tribunal has no jurisdiction to sit in judgment over the decision of the employer as an appellate body. The interference with the decision of the employer will be justified only when the findings arrived at in the enquiry are perverse or the management is guilty of victimisation, unfair labour practice or mala fide.
- Even if no enquiry has been held by an employer or if the enquiry held by him is found to be defective, the Tribunal in order to satisfy itself about the legality and validity of the order, had to give an opportunity to the employer and employee to adduce evidence before it. It is open to the employer to adduce evidence for the first time justifying his action, and it is open to the employee to adduce evidence contra.
- The effect of an employer not holding an enquiry is that the Tribunal would not have to consider only whether there was a prima facie case. On the other hand, the issue about the merits of the impugned order of dismissal or discharge is at large before the Tribunal and the latter, on the evidence adduced before it, has to decide for itself whether the misconduct alleged is proved. In such cases, the point about the exercise of managerial functions does not arise at all. A case of defective enquiry stands on the same footing as no enquiry.
- The Tribunal gets jurisdiction to consider the evidence placed before it for the first time in justification of the action taken only, if no enquiry has been held or after the enquiry conducted by an employer is found to be defective.
- It has never been recognised that the Tribunal should straightaway, without anything more, direct reinstatement of a dismissed or discharged employee, once it is found that no domestic enquiry has been held or the said enquiry is found to be defective.
- An employer, who wants to avail himself of the opportunity of adducing evidence for the first time before the Tribunal to justify his action, should ask for it at the appropriate stage. If such an opportunity is asked for, the Tribunal has no power to refuse. The giving of an opportunity to an employer to adduce evidence for the first time before the Tribunal is in the interest of both the management and the employee and to enable the Tribunal itself to be satisfied about the alleged misconduct.
- Once the misconduct is proved either in the enquiry conducted by an employer or by the evidence placed before a Tribunal for the first time, punishment imposed cannot be interfered with by the Tribunal except in cases where the punishment is so harsh as to suggest victimisation.
- In a particular case, after setting aside the order of dismissal, whether a workman should be reinstated or paid compensation is, as held by this Court in Management of Panitole Tea Estate v. Workmens within the judicial decision of a Labour Court or Tribunal.
CASE: STATE OF UTTARAKHAND vs. SURESHWATI [CIVIL APPEAL NO. 142 OF 2021]
CORAM: Justices L. Nageswara Rao, Navin Sinha and Indu Malhotra
CITATION: LL 2021 SC 34
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