Departmental proceedings during criminal trial not contempt of court

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The Supreme Court, in hearing an appeal against a Bombay High Court judgment in the Secretary, Lucy Sequeira Trust and Anr v Kailash Ramesh Tandel And Ors case, held that the initiation of a process in a departmental proceeding does not amount to contempt of court, even if there are criminal proceedings pending in the court.

While upholding the termination of a teacher accused of harassing girl students in a private school, the Supreme Court observed that pendency of criminal trial does not have any bearing on the domestic inquiry against the teacher.

On the basis of allegations of female students, first information reports were registered against a teacher of a school run by the appellant. In the meantime, an inquiry committee was constituted by the school to probe the allegations against the teacher. The committee consisted of the convenor (nominee of the management), a teachers’ nominee and an award-winning teacher.

The convenor prepared a report recommending the termination of the teacher’s employment, while the other two members of the inquiry committee opined that a decision by the committee during the pendency of the criminal trial will amount to a contempt of court.

After the teacher challenged the report, the school tribunal, though disagreeing with the view adopted by the teacher and the other members, ordered a fresh inquiry. Bombay High Court, however, dismissed the management’s challenge against the tribunal order.

In the appeal filed by the management, the Supreme Court observed that whether any criminal trial was pending or not would not have any bearing on the issue before the inquiry committee, and the conclusion by the convener in its report that charges were sensitive and called for strict action was absolutely correct. It is settled that a departmental proceeding and proceedings in a criminal court are completely different – the purpose, the standard of proof and the approach are all different.

The initiation of the process in a departmental proceeding, especially on charges with which the court is concerned, can never be said to amount to contempt of court, even if criminal proceedings were pending.

The allegations made against the teacher were of such a level and dimension that immediate action was required and such action, by its very nature, had to be completely independent.

The dispute digest is compiled by Bhasin & Co, a corporate law firm based in New Delhi. The authors can be contacted at lbhasin@bhasinco.in. Readers should not act on the basis of this information without seeking professional legal advice.