NAME OF THE CASE: NAVEEN ARORA v HIGH COURT OF DELHI AND ANR [W.P.(C) 7391/2022]; IN THE HIGH COURT OF DELHI AT NEW DELHI
CORAM: HON'BLE MR. JUSTICE MANMOHAN AND HON'BLE MR. JUSTICE SAURABH BANERJEE
DATE OF THE JUDGMENT: 23.03.23
The Petitioner has been removed from judicial service after there were discrepancies found in the expenses involved for a holiday undertaken with his brother’s family. It has been alleged that there has been a favour taken in exchange for the hotel money paid by a stranger and accommodation booked by a friend/client of the petitioner’s younger brother. The Court held that there was no violation of principles of natural justice and that the inquiry report was correctly recorded, thereby highlighting the discrepancies found. Accordingly, relief for reinstatement and arrears could not be granted.
Facts of the Case
The Petitioner was a Judicial Officer with the Delhi Higher Judiciary Service since 2003.
The Petitioner travelled abroad with his own family and his brother’s family in 2016 and upon his return in June 2016, he submitted documents to the High Court.
Noticing few discrepancies in he Hotel bookings abroad made by an unknown person, the High Court called for explanation from the petitioner, which led to exchange of letters inter-se them.
Being unsatisfied, the High Court issued a Memorandum containing the “Statement of Article of Charge‟.
It was alleged in the memorandum that “the Charged Officer, by his aforesaid act committed gross misconduct and an act unbecoming of a judicial officer in contravention of the Rule 3(1) of All India Services (Conduct) Rules, 1968 rendering himself liable for disciplinary action in accordance with Rule 8 of All India Services (Discipline and Appeals) Rules, 1969 which apply by virtue of Rule 27 of Delhi Higher Judicial Service Rules, 1970 by which the Officer is governed”.
This led to the appointment of an inquiry officer on the allegation that the Petitioner had accepted a favour in the form of sponsoring his stay at Radison Blu Hotel, Disneyland, Paris and Best Western Plus Hotel, Milton Roma, Rome respectively.
He was dismissed from service with immediate effect in view of the Inquiry Report dated 28.06.2021 which included imposition of a major penalty as well.
A decision of the full Court of the Delhi High Court dated 26.10.2021 dismissed him from service and the subsequent Order dated 23.11.2021 issued by the Office of the Principal District & Sessions Judge (S-W), Dwarka, New Delhi maintained the same.
Hence, he has now approached this Court to seek the quashing and setting aside of these orders and decisions and seeks reinstatement with complete exoneration, arrears along with other consequential benefits of continuity of service.
Whether the dismissal of the judicial officer on account of the charges levied was lawful?
Whether the plea of reinstatement with arrears should be allowed?
On behalf of the Petitioner, it was argued that (i) there has been confirmation bias. This is because the earlier unamended Article of Charge noted that though the Hotel bookings abroad were made by a friend/ client of the younger brother of the petitioner and paid for by a “stranger”. However, the said name of the friend/ client was removed in the amended Article of Charge to indicate that the payment was directly made by a “stranger‟ instead. This shows that the act of amendment contained a malafide intent and therefore could not have any legal bearing on the merits and facts of the case.
Secondly, (ii) as opposed to the act of the Respondent, the Petitioner did not have any malafide intent as he did not withhold information about the said payments being made by a “stranger‟ . He informed monies that were owed to the friend/ client of his younger brother on account of the Hotel bookings abroad and that the “stranger‟ was a friend of the friend/ client of his younger brother. In fact, he wanted to bring in more record through the form of additional witnesses that was not possible earlier in his Statement of Defense. Only one witness was allowed to be added and the statements of the second one could not be brought on record.
Thirdly, (iii) it was also contended that the petitioner had offered money in lieu of the said Hotel bookings abroad before leaving for the trip abroad to the friend/ client of his younger brother, who in turn assured him that he would accept the money only upon return. Eventually, the friend/ client of his younger brother refused to accept any money for the Hotel bookings despite repeated requests.
Lastly, the case of the petitioner was not covered in paragraph 10 of the “Restatement of values of Judicial Life” and by relying on the “Bangalore Principles of Judicial Conduct, 2002” it was contended that as the petitioner had not accepted a favour for discharge of his duties and it was not a case of quid-pro-quo and even otherwise the “stranger‟ was residing in Singapore and there was no situation in which the petitioner could oblige him.
By relying on a catena of judgments i.e., S.R. Tiwari vs Union of India and M.V. Bijlani vs Union of India & Ors as well Sadhna Chaudhary vs State of U.P. & Ors, it was contended that the punishment was not commensurate and the charge imposed by the inquiry report and even otherwise were vague and therefore it should be vitiated.
On behalf of the Respondent, it was argued that; (i) the Petitioner never disclosed the name of the “stranger‟ in any of his letters and his name was only visible in the documents annexed along with the letter dated 02.08.2016 submitted by him, though the text of the letter never mentioned his name.
Secondly, there was also a doubt on how the stranger, the friend of the younger brother of the Petitioner and the pro bono work that they were all involved in, including the Petitioner were involved. Simply put, n any event however, the payment of the hostel bookings who was connected with a friend of the younger brother of the Petitioner who was also a friend/ client with his collegemate with whom his wife and younger brother were connected, for pro bono work and even otherwise casts a shadow of doubt is enough to hold the P guilty.
The question that the Court undertook to answer was simple i.e., whether there was any violation of natural principles of Justice by the inquiry officer and the report.
Upon analysis, the Court noted and found that the Petitioner has neither challenged the appointment/ constitution of the Officer nor questioned the manner of the proceedings conducted by the Officer nor raised any doubts about the decision-making process followed by the Officer. Based on full procedure being followed and preponderance of probabilities, the Petitioner was found guilty.
Further, the petitioner, admittedly, asked for bookings abroad for a “guest house‟ and instead the bookings were done in “four/ five-star hotels” which even after being made aware, was not questioned. The petitioner did not disclose the name of the “stranger‟ or the details of exact amount owed to him, albeit only filed an annexure which contained his name and the amount. Additionally, the Petitioner filed Statement of Defence twice before the Officer, but none of them found the mention of the stranger.
The name of the stranger was only included later after the examination-in-chief of two witnesses, where the Petitioner was one himself. Lastly, the friend/ client of the younger brother of petitioner actually happened to be a client of an old collegemate of the petitioner himself, who was running a law firm, dealing with the cases of the friend/ client and with whom both the wife of petitioner and the younger brother of petitioner were working. The details of such association were not clear even after repeated inquiries.
There is a chain reaction involved which was observed and seen from these transactions. Further, the relationship of the petitioner, his wife and his younger brother and friend/ client and the “stranger‟ is unclear.
Therefore, it is very clear, prima facie, without even going into the details of this case that there has been acceptance of payment from a stranger and upgradation in the accommodation taken from monies paid by the stranger and booked by the friend. This creates a web of uncertainties and possibilities which were unlawful in nature.
The application has also been duly filed under Article 226 where the facts have already been recorded by the enquiry officer and therefore does not require a re – examination. As seen above, there has been no misuse of the rules applied or difference of opinion in the way the facts have been collected. This position has been reached from multiple judgments that have been quoted in this judgment.
There can be no doubt that the act of accepting money payments made by the stranger on the Petitioner’s behalf casted a shadow of doubt, especially due to the judicial function that was sought to be exercised for more than 10 years. In the present case, since the petitioner had preferred an application under Article 226 the Hon’ble High Court had duly invoked the principles of Natural Justice to examine the charges levied and found that there were no discrepancies in the conduct, report or the officer responsible. Admittedly, there was no such allegation made by the Petitioner either. It is also noteworthy to mention that the relationship between the stranger, the friend of the younger brother and his family vis -a – vis the Petitioner was not made clear even after repeated inquires, and on the face of it there were a lot of questions that remained unanswered which made the web of entanglement even clearer. The Petitioner did withhold some information and at the last moment, the evidence could not be brought on record.
Hence, for all these reasons, along with the discrepancies mentioned above, it has been rightfully held by the Court that the reliefs asked for could not be granted.
Symbiosis Law School, Pune.
Views expressed are author's own.
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