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"Mere suspicion cannot constitute misconduct", SC re-instates judicial officer dismissed for enhancing compensation for land acquisitions

"Such relief­ oriented judicial approaches cannot by themselves be grounds to cast aspersions on the honesty and integrity of an officer", the Court said.

Meera Emmanuel

The Supreme Court on Friday allowed a plea to re-instate a judicial officer from Uttar Pradesh, who had been dismissed from service on allegations that she had misjudged two land acquisition cases (Sadhna Chaudhary v. State of UP).

Judge Sadhna Chaudhary's decision to enhance the compensation payable in the two cases, while an Additional District Judge, had led to allegations that she had been motivated by extraneous considerations and indulged in judicial misconduct.

The Bench of Chief Justice SA Bobde and Justices BR Gavai and Suryakant allowed an appeal filed challenging her dismissal, after noting that writ pleas challenging both land acquisition verdicts had since been dismissed by the High Court.

In doing so, the Court emphasised that the dismissal of these writ petitions against Chaudhary's orders would not have necessarily vindicated her of the accusations of judicial misconduct if the judicial officer had been accused of indulging in impropriety during the process of decision making.

However, in this case, the charges against the judicial officer were entirely founded on the end-result i.e. the enhancement of compensation payable. Therefore, the case against Chaudhary fell apart once the challenges to her orders were not sustained by the High Court.

The Court observed that, "a perusal of the charges … makes it evident that the exclusive cause of enquiry, inference of dishonesty as well as imposition of penalty was only on the basis of the conclusion of enhancement of compensation. Given how the challenge to one of those two orders had been turned down at the High Court stage, and the other was both affirmed and furthered in principle by this Court, the very foundation of the charges no longer survives.”

“ … given how the end result itself has been untouched by superior courts and instead in one of the two cases, the compensation only increased, no such inference (of misconduct) can be made. Thus, the entire case against the appellant collapses like a house of cards."

Supreme Court

Even generally, the Court pointed out that the focus in such disciplinary matters should be on whether the judicial officer had indulged in any misconduct during the process of decision-making, rather than on the final judicial outcome of the case.

“… the end result of the judicial process does not matter, and what matters is only the decision ­making process employed by the delinquent officer', the Court observed.

The Bench further explains in its judgment that,

“ Indeed, many­a­times it is possible that a judicial officer can indulge in conduct unbecoming of his office whilst at the same time giving an order, the result of which is legally sound. Such unbecoming conduct can either be in the form of a judge taking a case out of turn, delaying hearings through adjournments, seeking bribes to give parties their legal dues etc. None of these necessarily need to affect the outcome.”

Supreme Court

In this backdrop, the Court also cautioned against relying on suspicion bereft of any supporting material in presuming that a judicial officer is guilty of misconduct. The Court said,

“… mere suspicion cannot constitute ‘misconduct’. Any ‘probability’ of misconduct needs to be supported with oral or documentary material, even though the standard of proof would obviously not be at par with that in a criminal trial.”
Supreme Court

Moreover, it was pointed out that a liberal enhancement of compensation payable is not by itself sufficient to cast aspersions on the integrity of a judicial officer.

“There are innumerable instances of judicial officers who are liberal in granting bail, awarding compensation under MACT or for acquired land, backwages to workmen or mandatory compensation in other cases of tortious liabilities. Such relief­ oriented judicial approaches cannot by themselves be grounds to cast aspersions on the honesty and integrity of an officer.”

The Court added that,

“… one cannot overlook the reality of ours being a country wherein countless complainants are readily available without hesitation to tarnish the image of the judiciary, often for mere pennies or even cheap momentary popularity. Sometimes a few disgruntled members of the Bar also join hands with them, and officers of the subordinate judiciary are usually the easiest target. It is, therefore, the duty of High Courts to extend their protective umbrella and ensure that upright and straightforward judicial officers are not subjected to unmerited onslaught."

Supreme Court

With these, among other, observations, the Court proceeded to rule in the judicial officer’s favour and directed her re-instatement to the judicial service.

[Read the Judgment]

Sadhna Chaudhary v State of UP.pdf
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