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Manager, Venture Estate v/s General Secretary & Others

Company & Directors' Information:- B B VENTURE PRIVATE LIMITED [Active] CIN = U52209CT2008PTC020645

Company & Directors' Information:- S A R VENTURE PRIVATE LIMITED [Active] CIN = U70102DL2015PTC275704

Company & Directors' Information:- N J VENTURE PRIVATE LIMITED [Strike Off] CIN = U70101MH2008PTC186387

    W.P.(C) No. 33973 of 2005

    Decided On, 20 January 2012

    At, High Court of Kerala


    For the Petitioner: E.K. Nandakumar (Sr.); A.K. Jayasankar Nambiar (Sr.) & K. John Mathai, Advocate. For the Respondents: Egy N. Elias (G.P) & B. Suresh Kumar, Advocates.

Judgment Text

K. Vinod Chandran, J.

1. The petitioner is the management in an Industrial Dispute, in which the Labour Court, Kollam found the disciplinary enquiry conducted at the instance of the management to be in violation of the principles of natural justice. However, the Labour Court gave a fresh opportunity to the management for adducing evidence before the Court. The preliminary order by which the enquiry was set aside is challenged before this Court invoking the discretionary and supervisory jurisdiction conferred on this Court under Article 226 and 227 of the Constitution of India.

2. The Union which espoused the cause of the workman before the Labour Court having not entered appearance, the workman himself got impleaded as the additional 3rd respondent in the writ petition. The learned counsel for the management as also the 3rd respondent were heard on the issues raised.

3. Proceedings were initiated against the delinquent worker by the management by a chargesheet dated 23.10.2002 alleging riotous and disorderly behaviour in the premises of the employer and the workman was also placed under suspension. Admittedly a domestic enquiry was conducted against the delinquent employee, in which he participated along with a Union Representative and the Enquiry Officer having found the delinquent worker to be guilty of the charges levelled against him, the disciplinary authority imposed the punishment of dismissal. The issue whether the dismissal of the workman was justified was referred to the Labour Court, which culminated in the impugned order, Exhibit P1.

4. Before the Labour Court, the workman filed a claim statement and inter alia raised the contention that the Enquiry Officer was not competent in so far as he was not able to read or write Malayalam and also alleged violation of the principles of natural justice on the ground of failure to give opportunity to effectively cross examine the management’s witnesses, non supply of records relied on and denial of opportunity to adduce evidence. It was also contended that the enquiry report was not supplied to the delinquent and that the management abruptly dismissed him without affording an opportunity for hearing. Assertions were also made in the claim statement denying the misconduct alleged against the workman which, in my opinion, need not be gone into at this stage as the Labour Court has not considered the merits of the matter and has merely passed the preliminary order setting aside the enquiry for violation of principles of natural justice.

5. Before the Labour Court when the validity of the domestic enquiry came up for consideration as preliminary issue, the management has, as is in vogue, marked the enquiry report and connected files through the enquiry officer, who was examined as MW-1. On chief examination, the enquiry officer deposed that the proceedings of the enquiry was recorded in English and the same translated to the worker in Malayalam through another officer of the management, who acted as an interpreter. On cross examination, it was admitted by the Enquiry Officer that the workman was an illiterate person and that the Enquiry Officer could not read or write Malayalam. The Enquiry Officer went on to depose that the documents produced by the Enquiry Officer on behalf of the management were in Malayalam and that no witness schedule or document list was produced in the enquiry nor was any supplied to the delinquent worker. It was also admitted that the documents marked were not given to the worker. On the strength of the clear admissions made by the Enquiry Officer, the Labour Court found that there is violation of principles of natural justice and hence set aside the enquiry, but however granting opportunity to the management to adduce evidence before the Court.

6. The learned counsel for the management would urge before me that the primary question the Labour Court ought to have gone into was whether any prejudice was caused to the workman by the alleged violation of principles of natural justice. The Labour Court, according to him, ought to have noticed the evidence of the workman in the nature of the statement given before the Enquiry Officer as also the evidence recorded by the Enquiry Officer to examine the prejudice caused and the Labour Court not having gone into such materials, could not have set at naught the enquiry without any grounds of prejudice being found.

7. In support of the contention that there is no prejudice caused, the learned counsel would, also invite me to look into the enquiry report, which shows the appointment of an interpreter and the specific consent obtained from the workman regarding the appointment of the Enquiry Officer. Counsel would also point out that each day’s proceedings were countersigned by the workman and the Union Representative who appeared on his behalf.

8. The learned counsel would also raise a plea that the defect in enquiry was a plea raised by the workman, and without the worker lending the evidence, the Labour Court ought not to have found the enquiry to be bad. In support of this contention, he places reliance on a decision of the High Court of Bombay, reported in Narang Latex and Dispersions Pvt. Ltd. v. S.V. Suvarna and Anr., 1995 (1) LLJ 113. The counsel would contend that the burden of proof regarding the fairness of the enquiry lies squarely on the shoulders of the workman and the workman had to lead evidence first on the issue, since it was the workman who made such a claim before the Labour Court and it was for him to prove or establish the fact by leading evidence. The contention of the learned counsel is that the Labour Court ought not to have relied on the evidence of the enquiry officer and in the absence of any evidence on the part of the workman, the defect in enquiry could not have been presumed by the Labour Court.

9. The learned counsel for the respondent/workman supported the order of the Labour Court and also raised a contention that the preliminary order passed by the Labour Court cannot be subjected to challenge under Article 226 of the Constitution of India.

10. The contention regarding the competence of a challenge under Article 226 with respect to a preliminary order passed by the Labour Court is covered by a Bench decision of this Court reported in St. Thomas Missions Hospital v. State of Kerala, 2007 (2) KLT 415. The preliminary objection regarding the maintainability of the writ petition hence has to be found against the workman, following the above judgment.

11. The issues that remain for consideration are whether the setting aside of the enquiry is on totally misconceived reasons and whether the violation of principles of natural justice has been sufficiently proved before the Labour Court. In deciding the said issues, this Court is called upon to consider the sufficiency of evidence on the two distinct challenges made by the learned counsel for the management on the aspect of prejudice caused as also the question of discharge of burden of proof by the person who raises a claim in a lis.

12. Whether there is any violation of principles of natural justice and if so whether it causes prejudice to the workman is to be examined first. From a reading of the enquiry report produced as Exhibit P2, it can be discerned that an interpreter was appointed and that the delinquent worker had replied in the negative to a specific question of any objection regarding the appointment of the Enquiry Officer to conduct the enquiry. Does this constitute a waiver and will it preclude the workman from raising an objection before a higher forum? Admittedly the delinquent worker is an illiterate person and the Enquiry Officer is not conversant with the local language, i.e., Malayalam. From the averments made in the writ petition, it is to be noticed that the specific case of the management is that the enquiry proceedings were recorded in English and the same was translated into Malayalam and based on such translation, the Union Representative cross examined the management witness in detail (Ground-B). The enquiry proceedings including the questions and answers on examination of witnesses were recorded in English. There is nothing in the report to show that what was recorded in English was translated to the delinquent worker before he affixed his left hand thumb impression at the close of proceedings and at the bottom of each page. What is noticed before the affixing of the signature is 'the above was read, heard and understood' (sic). Evidently when a person not conversant with the local language was appointed as an Enquiry Officer to conduct an enquiry against an illiterate local worker; the proceedings of which could only be carried on in the local language, it raises a suspicion regarding the fairness of such proceedings. The said action would necessarily contemplate a situation where the questions and answers are rendered in Malayalam, which has to be translated to the Enquiry Officer for the purpose of recording the same in English and what is so recorded again has to be translated to facilitate the illiterate delinquent to understand the same. It is strange and beyond all comprehension as to why a person who was not conversant with the local language was appointed as the Enquiry Officer. It is also evident that the witnesses examined in the enquiry were all workers except one and none of them was familiar with English language.

13. Be that as it may, the further contention of the management that the Union representative ably assisted the workman and that he conducted the cross examination also cannot, on facts, said to be true. The Union Representative has signed in Tamil, that too only in the first page and has not affixed his signature in any of the other pages of the proceeding. The questions asked in cross examination would also show that same were in the first person, i.e., by the delinquent worker himself. Coupled with what is discernible from the very face of the enquiry proceedings is the admission of the Enquiry Officer that no witness schedule or document list was produced in the enquiry, nor supplied to the delinquent worker and no document marked at the enquiry were given to the worker. The proposition that disciplinary proceedings constitute quasi-judicial proceedings attracting principles of nature justice requires no reiteration and as has been held in A.K. Kraipak v. Union of India, AIR 1970 SC 150:

'The requirement of acting judicially in essence is nothing but a requirement to act justly and fairly and not arbitrarily or capriciously. The procedures which are considered inherent in the exercise of a judicial power are merely those which facilitate if not ensure a just and fair decision.'

Considering the circumstances under which the enquiry was conducted, as noticed above, there can be no doubt that there is no veneer of justness or fairness in the enquiry conducted by the management and the same is vitiated by blatant arbitrariness and is patently capricious for reasons of violation of principles of natural justice. The issue of prejudice caused to the workman is inextricably linked with the findings in aid of the conclusion of the enquiry to be arbitrary and capricious for violation of principles of natural justice. It is the decision making process that is examined in the process of judicial review and the examination of the merits of the decision as such or the consideration of the gravity or otherwise of the alleged misconduct is not to be gone into to find prejudice.

14. The question that remains to be considered is regarding the 'burden of proof' and whether the burden can be said to have been discharged only on the evidence led by the person claiming a fact or demurring a fact in a lis. In my opinion, the reliance by the counsel for the petitioner in the judgment of the High Court of Bombay noticed supra is irrelevant in the facts and circumstances of this case. The specific issue raised in the said decision was with respect to the order of Labour Court directing the management to lead evidence first on the issue of fairness of the enquiry. The decisions relied on in the said judgment also raises a question as to on whom the burden of proof lies. There can be no dispute with respect to the proposition that the burden of proving a fact is on the person who claims it. However, in the instant case, the Enquiry Officer, in the course of marking the enquiry report, made clear admissions regarding the violation of principles of natural justice, as is noticed above. In the teeth of the clear admissions made by the Enquiry Officer, does the shoulders of the delinquent worker still stand stooped with the 'burden of proof?' The answer would be a categoric and emphatic ‘No’, that too on the strength of precedents. An admission without doubt is the best evidence. The Hon’ble Supreme Court in Nagindas Ramdas v. Dalpatram Iccharam alias Brijram and others, AIR 1974 SC 471 held:-

'Admissions, if true and clear, are by far the best proof of the facts admitted. Admissions in pleadings or judicial admissions, admissible under Section 58 of the Evidence Act, made by the parties or their agents at or before the hearing of the case, stand on a higher footing than evidentiary admissions. The former class of admissions are fully binding on the party that makes them and constitute a waiver of proof. They by themselves can be made the foundation of the rights of the parties'.

The proposition was reiterated in Gautam Sarup v. Leela Jetly & Ors. 2008 AIR SCW 4113 by another Bench of the Supreme Court and it was held:

'An admission made in a pleading is not to be treated in the same manner as an admission in a document. An admission made by a party to the lis is admissible against him proprio vigore'

15. The instant case is one in which the Enquiry Officer appointed by the management, also an officer in the employment of the management, deposed before Court various material facts regarding the procedure adopted in the conduct of a disciplinary enquiry, which amply and clearly demonstrate violation of principles of natural justice. As noticed earlier, the said admissions were made in the course of examination of the Enquiry Officer for the purpose of marking the enquiry report. The said step is normally the first procedural step adopted in considering the fairness or otherwise of the enquiry. Such procedure being in vogue, as noticed earlier, the management cannot now contend that since the violation of principles of natural justice was inferred from the evidence of management witness, the same cannot be sustained especially since the workman was not called upon to lead evidence. There is no rule that a claim made by a party in a lis can only be proved by his evidence. In fact, the rule is otherwise when admissions are made and the benefit of such admissions necessarily enures to the contesting party. The management witness having in his deposition admitted to the violation of principles of natural justice, there is no requirement for the workman to lead any evidence, since the violation stands proved by the clear admissions made. Disciplinary proceedings are proceedings in which the ordinary rules of evidence do not apply and the importance of procedural safeguards and the need to scrupulously observe the same cannot but be overemphasized. The instant enquiry which concluded in the dismissal of the workman violated the procedural safeguards, i.e., principles of natural justice of material aspects.

16. One other question which needs to be addressed is whether the participation of the delinquent worker in the enquiry proceedings would amount to a waiver thus precluding him from raising an objection regarding the competence of the Enquiry Officer. The plea of competence as raised here, in the facts and circumstances of this case, is one which goes to the root of the question and is based on admitted and uncontroverted facts and does not require any further investigation into a question of fact. The record of the proceedings though would show the participation of the delinquent worker, the procedure adopted would conspicuously demonstrate the clear

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violation of principles of natural justice and the resultant prejudice caused to the delinquent worker. The delinquent worker has also raised it at the first forum after conclusion of the proceedings, i.e., the Labour Court. 17. One further aspect to be noticed in the instant case is that the order of the disciplinary authority is handwritten after the enquiry proceedings are concluded. The order appears on the last page of the enquiry proceedings, after the Enquiry Report. A reading of the order would show that the copy of the enquiry report was not supplied to the delinquent worker nor was he heard regarding the findings of the Enquiry Officer or the proposed punishment. In the circumstances, on a consideration of the entire facts and circumstances of the case, I am of the opinion that the writ petition lacks merit and the same is liable to be dismissed. 18. The learned counsel for the petitioner would contend that at this distance of time effective evidence cannot be adduced before the Labour Court. I am afraid, the said contention cannot be taken note of, since the management had an opportunity to adduce fresh evidence immediately after the impugned order was passed. However, the management took the option of challenging the preliminary order before this Court and also obtained an interim stay, thus voluntarily stalling the proceedings before the Labour Court. It is not as if the management could not have adduced evidence and postponed the challenge against the preliminary order till the conclusion of the entire proceedings. The management having voluntarily approached this Court, necessarily was also aware of the consequence of the dismissal of the writ petition. In the circumstances, the writ petition is dismissed as devoid of merit, however, with no costs.