In an extremely significant judgment with far reaching consequences, the Chhattisgarh High Court has as recently as on May 13, 2022 in a brief, brilliant, bold and balanced judgment titled Ganesh Ram Berman v. High Court of Chhattisgarh & Anr. in Writ Petition (S) No. 825 of 2017 held unambiguously that under Article 235 of the Constitution of India which provides control to the High Courts over subordinate courts, the former cannot terminate the services of a District Judge or impose any punishment of reduction in rank. This power belongs to the Governor being the appointing authority under Article 311(1) of the Constitution. However, the word “control” in the Article gives the High Court power to make inquiries and disciplinary control and recommend imposition of such punishment. No doubt, this is a very progressive, powerful and pragmatic judgment.
To start with, this extremely refreshing, remarkable, robust and rational judgment authored by a single Judge Bench comprising of Justice Sanjay K Agrawal of Chhattisgarh High Court sets the ball rolling by first and foremost putting forth in para 1 that, “This petition is directed against the order dated 6-2-2017 (Annexure P-5) by which the State of Chhattisgarh exercising the power under sub-rule (4) of Rule 9 of the Chhattisgarh Higher Judicial Service (Recruitment and Conditions of Service) Rules, 2006 (for short, ‘the HJS Rules’) and on the recommendation of the High Court of Chhattisgarh, terminated the services of the petitioner with immediate effect.”
To put things in perspective, the Bench then envisages in para 2 that, “The petitioner was appointed as District Judge (Entry Level) by order dated 30-10-2014 (Annexure P-2) and he was posted as Additional District Judge, Raipur. It is the case of the petitioner that during the continuance of the period of probation, he was served with a memo dated 26-8-2016 by the Registrar (Vigilance) along with memo dated 31-8-2016 issued by the District & Sessions Judge, Raipur with a copy of anonymous complaint making certain allegations against him and two other judicial officers. The petitioner was directed to submit his explanation on the anonymous complaint and on the inspection report of the Registrar (Vigilance) which he submitted on 24-9-2016 vide Annexure P-4, but he was not informed anything further and he was served with the order of termination dated 6-2-2017 in terms of sub-rule (4) of Rule 9 of the HJS Rules. It is the further case of the petitioner that the order of termination is stigmatic / punitive in nature, once the order of termination is stigmatic and punitive, it must have been followed by a full-fledged departmental enquiry which has not been done, as such, the impugned order of termination is liable to be quashed. It is also the case of the petitioner that the inspection report of the Registrar (Vigilance) along with the explanation of the petitioner was submitted to the Standing Committee and the Standing Committee in its meeting dated 24-1-2017 took a decision and resolved to recommend the termination of services of the petitioner under sub-rule (4) of Rule 9 of the HJS Rules. The Standing Committee was not empowered to recommend the termination of the petitioner’s services to the State Government and it was only the Full Court of the High Court which was authorised to recommend for termination of the services of the petitioner in view of the provisions contained in Article 235 of the Constitution of India. It is also the case of the petitioner that the Full Court has never authorised the Standing Committee as contained in terms of Rule 4-C under Chapter I-A of the High Court of Chhattisgarh Rules, 2007 (for short, ‘the Rules of 2007’) read with Rule 9(4) of the HJS Rules to recommend the termination of a probationer. As such, the termination of the petitioner is liable to be quashed on the aforesaid two grounds.”
As it turned out, the Bench then points out in para 3 that, “Return has been filed by respondent No.1 / High Court stating inter alia that the order of termination of the petitioner, who is a probationer, is strictly in accordance with Rule 9(4) of the HJS Rules. It has been pleaded that an anonymous complaint dated 3-12-2015 and another complaint dated 18-1-2016 was made by Shri J.P. Agrawal, Civil Court, Raipur, which were placed before the Portfolio Judge for consideration and pursuant to the order of the then Portfolio Judge, records of criminal cases including bail, criminal appeal and criminal revision decided by the petitioner as Judicial Officer were called for and ultimately, the Registrar (Vigilance) conducted enquiry and submitted report and in the enquiry, no apparent irregularity was found in the sessions case, criminal appeals and criminal revisions for the period from August, 2015 to January, 2016 decided by the petitioner and two other judicial officers, however, certain irregularities were found in respect of four bail applications decided by the petitioner which shows the inability of the petitioner to act as a Judicial officer and his working was found not to be satisfactory. Ultimately, inspection report dated 15-6-2016 submitted by the Registrar (Vigilance) was placed before the Portfolio Judge, Raipur for consideration and it was placed before the Standing Committee and the matter was ultimately considered by the Standing Committee vide resolution dated 16-8-2016 which called for explanation of the petitioner after furnishing the copy of report and in compliance of resolution dated 16-8-2016, memo dated 26-8-2016 was issued to the petitioner seeking his explanation. Ultimately, decision was taken to terminate the services of the petitioner and his services were recommended to be terminated which was accepted by the State Government and the impugned order was came to be passed.”
While continuing in same vein, the Bench then states in para 4 that, “Thereafter, the petitioner filed rejoinder on 15-2-2018 followed by additional rejoinder on 13-7-2018 stating inter alia that recommendation for his termination was not made by the Full Court, but was made by the Standing Committee. The petitioner also filed copy of information obtained with regard to composition of Standing Committee dated 6-2-2017 vide Annexure P-6.”
As we see, the Bench then notes in para 5 that, “On 2-5-2019, additional return was filed by respondent No.1 – High Court stating that the Standing Committee has only made recommendation in contemplation of Chapter I-A of the Rules of 2007 and final decision was taken by the Full Court, and not taken by the Standing Committee as alleged by the petitioner.”
Furthermore, the Bench then specifies in para 6 that, “On 27-1-2022, the petitioner filed documents along with copy of the extract of the Minutes of the Meeting of the Standing Committee dated 24-1-2017 obtained under the Right to information Act to demonstrate that his termination was recommended by the Standing Committee and on the same day, the matter came up for hearing before this Court and time was sought and granted to counsel for respondent No.1 to file additional return, and ultimately, additional return has been filed on behalf of respondent No.1 on 18-2-2022 stating that the petitioner’s matter was placed for consideration before the Standing Committee and the Standing Committee taking into account the fact that the petitioner was on probation, recommended for termination of his services and pursuant to the recommendation of the Standing Committee, the Government of Chhattisgarh, Law and Legislative Affairs Department has passed order dated 6-2-2017 terminating the services of the petitioner. No further pleadings have been filed by the parties.”
Be it noted, the Bench then postulates in para 11 that, “Upon hearing learned counsel for the parties, following two questions posed for consideration: –
1. Whether the Standing Committee constituted by notification dated 4-7-2015 would have competence and jurisdiction to recommend the termination of the petitioner’s services (probationer) to the State Government in terms of sub-rule (4) of Rule 9 of the HJS Rules read with Article 235 of the Constitution of India?
2. Whether the termination of the petitioner’s services from the post of District Judge was punitive / stigmatic warranting holding of full-fledged enquiry against him into the allegations of misconduct?
Answer to Question No.1: –
Quite ostensibly, the Bench then stipulates in para 12 that, “In order to answer the question, it would be appropriate to notice Article 235 of the Constitution of India, which states as under: –
“235. Control over subordinate courts.—The control over district courts and courts subordinate thereto including the posting and promotion of, and the grant of leave to, persons belonging to the judicial service of a State and holding any post inferior to the post of district judge shall be vested in the High Court, but nothing in this article shall be construed as taking away from any such person any right of appeal which he may have under the law regulating the conditions of his service or as authorising the High Court to deal with him otherwise than in accordance with the conditions of his service prescribed under such law.””
Of course, the Bench then hastens to add in para 13 that, “A focused glance of the aforesaid provision would show that while the posting and promotion of District Judges shall be in the hands of the Governor acting in consultation with the High Court,—the posting and promotion and granting of leave to officers of the State Judicial Service other than District Judges shall be exclusively in the hands of the High Court, subject, of course, to such appeals as are allowed by the law regulating conditions of the service.”
It cannot be glossed over that the Bench then mentions in para 32 that, “A careful perusal of the additional return filed by the High Court on 18- 2-2022 would show that it is the Standing Committee which has recommended the case of the petitioner for termination to the State Government and on that basis, the State Government passed order dated 6-2-2017 terminating the services of the petitioner.”
It is worth noting that the Bench then holds in para 33 that, “From the aforesaid factual position on record, it is quite vivid that the competent authority to make recommendation for termination of the petitioner’s services on the ground that his services were not satisfactory, was the Full Court of the High Court in view of Article 235 of the Constitution of India and in view of the judgments of the Supreme Court noticed herein-above, however, in the present case, admittedly, the Full Court had not made any recommendation for termination of the petitioner’s services and it is the Standing Committee that has made such recommendation for dismissal of his services which the Standing Committee was neither empowered nor authorised in terms of notification dated 4-7-2015 to make recommendation to terminate the services of the petitioner. Since the power to make recommendation to the State Government to terminate the services of the petitioner is vested with the Full Court of the High Court by virtue of Article 235 of the Constitution of India, the Full Court would only be the competent authority to exercise such power, but, in the instant case, no such recommendation has been made by the Full Court of the High Court to terminate the services of the petitioner in terms of Rule 9(4) of the HJS Rules. Since the High Court has not made any recommendation in terms of Rule 9(4) of the HJS R les to terminate the petitioner’s services, the order of termination passed by respondent No.2 on the basis of recommendation of the Standing Committee is ipso facto unconstitutional, non est and without authority of law, and deserves to be quashed.”
Answer to question No.2: –
It merits mentioning that the Bench then expounds in para 34 that, “Since this Court has already held herein-above while answering question No.1 that the order of termination passed by respondent No.2 State Government is ipso facto unconstitutional, non est and without authority of law, the question as to whether the impugned order terminating the services of the petitioner is punitive or stigmatic in nature, in my considered opinion need not be gone into as the impugned order was passed on the basis of recommendation made by incompetent authority.”
While citing a very recent and relevant case law, the Bench then states in para 35 that, “Very recently, the Supreme Court in the matter of Sunny Abraham v. Union of India and another 2021 SCC OnLine SC 1284 at para 11 while deciding that any decision not having the authority of law would be non-est explained the doctrine of non-est in the following words: –
“… The term non-est conveys the meaning of something treated to be not in existence because of some legal lacuna in the process of creation of the subject-instrument. It goes beyond a remediable irregularity. That is how the Coordinate Bench has construed the impact of not having approval of the Disciplinary Authority in issuing the charge memorandum. In the event a legal instrument is deemed to be not in existence, because of certain fundamental defect in its issuance, subsequent approval cannot revive its existence and ratify acts done in pursuance of such instrument, treating the same to be valid.””
Quite palpably, the Bench then maintained in para 36 that, “Since the impugned order of termination has already been held to be unconstitutional, non-est and without authority of law, this question though placed for consideration, is not being gone into as held hereinabove and question No.2 is answered accordingly.”
Most significantly, the Bench then holds in para 37 that, “As a fallout and consequence of the aforesaid discussion, question No.1 is answered in favour of the petitioner and question No.2 is answered in the terms stated herein-above. In view of the above stated analysis, impugned order dated 6-2-2017 (Annexure P-5) terminating the petitioner’s services is liable to be and is hereby quashed. However, this will not bar respondent No.1 to proceed in accordance with law. The petitioner is directed to be reinstated in service forthwith along with all consequential service benefits except back-wages. The question of back-wages will be considered by the competent authority. However, the petitioner may make representation to the competent authority within 30 days from today claiming back-wages which shall be considered by the competent authority within next 60 days in accordance with law keeping in view the relevant rules and regulations.”
Finally, the Bench then concludes by holding in para 38 that, “Accordingly, the writ petition is allowed to the extent indicated hereinabove leaving the parties to bear their own cost(s).”
To sum up, the Chhattisgarh High Court has been most forthright and firm in holding that High Court can’t terminate service of District Judge or impose any punishment of reduction in rank under Article 235 of Constitution. No denying it! The process which the High Court follows in such cases has already been discussed hereinabove.
To put things in perspective, the Bench then envisages in para 2 that, “The petitioner was appointed as District Judge (Entry Level) by order dated 30-10-2014 (Annexure P-2) and he was posted as Additional District Judge, Raipur. It is the case of the petitioner that during the continuance of the period of probation, he was served with a memo dated 26-8-2016 by the Registrar (Vigilance) along with memo dated 31-8-2016 issued by the District & Sessions Judge, Raipur with a copy of anonymous complaint making certain allegations against him and two other judicial officers.