“What a mess!”SC calls for minimal judicial interference in conduct of Public Examinations

“What a mess!”SC calls for minimal judicial interference in conduct of Public Examinations

Meera Emmanuel

The Supreme Court has reiterated that there should be minimal interference from the judiciary when it comes to the conduct and evaluation of public examinations by statutory authorities.

Pertinent observations in this regard were made by a Bench comprising Justices Madan B Lokur and Deepak Gupta, as it put an end to the long-standing controversy surrounding the conduct and evaluation of the 2009 Uttar Pradesh Secondary Education Services Examination.

History of the case

The trail of events which took place over the course of eight years, culminating in the case before the Supreme Court can be traced to petitions filed contesting the results of the UP Public Service Exam before the Allahabad High Court between 2010 and 2011.

At this stage, one single judge refused to entertain the matter relying on the law laid down in Himachal Pradesh Public Service Commission v Mukesh Thakur that when it comes to the conduct of public examinations, “…in the absence of any provision under the statute or statutory rules/regulations, the Court should not generally direct revaluation.

However, when similar petitions came up before another single judge of the same court, the Court found it appropriate to admit the matter and further went on scrutinise appropriate answers with respect to seven disputed questions

In February 2012, the judge directed the re-examination of answer sheets with respect to the seventy-seven petitioners who had approached the Court. It was further directed that in case the writ petitioners are selected, then those at the bottom of the select list would automatically have to be pushed out.

A Special Appeal filed by the UP Public Service Selection Board was dismissed by a Division Bench of the High Court in March, 2012. In April 2012, the Board informed the High Court that the answer sheets of all the candidates would be revalued (second revaluation) in the light of the judgment of the Single Judge.

Accordingly, revaluation was held and results of the written examination of all candidates were declared in September 2012. However, some candidates who were successful as per the first set of results, found that they were unsuccessful after revaluation.

In May 2014 the Board published the final select list of candidates who had cleared the written examination as well as the interview. In this final select list, more candidates, who were previously successful, found that they had not made the cut in the new merit list.

Therefore, a fresh challenge was made to the Single Judge’s order before a Division Bench, by these aggrieved candidates. The aggrieved appellants contended that the Single Judge had incorrectly revalued the seven disputed questions and had arrived at incorrect answers to these questions.

In April 2015, the Division Bench referred the seven disputed questions/answers for consideration by a one-man Expert Committee. In November 2015, the Division Bench directed a fresh (third) evaluation of the answer sheets on the basis of the Report of the Expert Committee.

This order was in turn challenged before the Supreme Court.

Supreme Court’s observations as regards Court interference in Public Examinations

The Court found that the scope for interference by the judiciary in public examinations conducted by statutory authorities is limited. While it noted that interference is possible, it is only permitted in rare and exceptional situations and to a very limited extent.

This is because there must be finality attached to the result of a public examination. In the absence of statutory provisions, revaluation of answer scripts cannot be permitted. If it is to be done, it can only be directed in exceptional cases and as a rarity. Otherwise, it is not up to the Court to interfere with the domain of the legislature and the subordinate regulation-making body.

This position was gauged from the law laid down in a number of precedents including, Kanpur University v Samir Gupta, Maharashtra State Board of Secondary and Higher Secondary Education v Paritosh Bhupeshkumar Sheth, Pramod Kumar Srivastava v Chairman, Bihar Public Service Commission, Board of Secondary Education v Pravas Ranjan Panda and President, Board of Secondary Education v D Suvankar, among other cases.

Summing up the prevailing position on the subject, the Court emphasised:

  • If a statute, Rule or Regulation governing an examination permits the re-evaluation of an answer sheet or scrutiny of an answer sheet as a matter of right, then the authority conducting the examination may permit it;
  • If a statute, Rule or Regulation governing an examination does not permit re-evaluation or scrutiny of an answer sheet (as distinct from prohibiting it) then the Court may permit re-evaluation or scrutiny only if it is demonstrated very clearly, without any “inferential process of reasoning or by a process of rationalisation” and only in rare or exceptional cases that a material error has been committed;
  • The Court should not at all re-evaluate or scrutinize the answer sheets of a candidate – it has no expertise in the matter and academic matters are best left to academics;
  • The Court should presume the correctness of the key answers and proceed on that assumption; and
  • In the event of a doubt, the benefit should go to the examination authority rather than to the candidate.

Single judge ought not to have admitted the challenge

In this context, the Supreme Court noted that the Single judge was not correct in admitting the matter in the first place on two broad grounds.

Firstly, the single judge failed to appreciate the appropriate law. Reliance was erroneously placed on the case of Manish Ujwal v Maharishi Dayanand Saraswati University which was clearly distinguishable on facts.

Furthermore, the writ petitions were entertained even after similar petitions were dismissed by another bench of the same court. Expressing deep anguish for the apparent disregard of the contradictory position taken by another single judge, the Supreme Court observed,

Respect for the view taken by a coordinate Bench is an essential element of judicial discipline. A judge might have a difference of opinion with another judge, but that does not give him or her any right to ignore the contrary view. In the event of a difference of opinion, the procedure sanctified by time must be adhered to so that there is demonstrated respect for the rule of law.

System of holding Public Examinations should be scrutinised to avoid Prolonged Litigation

The Court made clear its disapproval in the prolonged litigation that followed such erroneous admission. In the order passed, the Bench has remarked,

What a mess! This is perhaps the only way to describe the events that have transpired in the examination conducted by the U.P. Secondary Education Services Selection Board…

…It is rather unfortunate that despite several decisions of this Court, some of which have been discussed above, there is interference by the Courts in the result of examinations. This places the examination authorities in an unenviable position where they are under scrutiny and not the candidates…

The present appeals are a classic example of the consequence of such interference where there is no finality to the result of the examinations even after a lapse of eight years…

…This unsatisfactory situation does not work to anybody’s advantage and such a state of uncertainty results in confusion being worse confounded. The overall and larger impact of all this is that public interest suffers.”

Apart from endorsing minimal interference by the Courts in such matters, the Court has also opined that,

The system of holding public examinations needs to be carefully scrutinised and reviewed so that selected candidates are not drawn into litigation which could go on for several years.

The Middle-Path Verdict

The Court noted that following the High Court’s directions, a third revaluation of results had already been completed by the authorities. The Court could choose between upholding the results of three separate evaluations. Regardless of which results were made the basis for selection, there would be candidates likely to suffer and lose jobs.

In an attempt to minimise the number of candidates likely to suffer following the Court’s resolution at this stage, it was opined that a middle path may offer a solution to the impasse. The Court thus proposed the following solution,

The middle path is to declare the third set of results … and yet protect those candidates may now be declared unsuccessful but are working as Trained Graduate Teachers a result of the first or the second declaration of results.

It is also possible that consequent upon the third declaration of results some new candidates might get selected and should that happen, they will need to be accommodated since they were erroneously not selected on earlier occasions.”

Hence, the Court has directed that:

  • The results prepared by the Board consequent upon the decision dated 2nd November, 2015 of the High Court (third set of results) should be declared by the Board within two weeks from today.
  • Candidates appointed and working as Trained Graduate Teachers pursuant to the declaration of results on the earlier occasions, if found unsuccessful on the third declaration of results, should not be removed from service but should be allowed to continue.
  • Candidates now selected for appointment as Trained Graduate Teachers (after the third declaration of results) should be appointed by the State by creating supernumerary posts. However, these newly appointed Trained Graduate Teachers will not be entitled to any consequential benefits.

Senior Advocates Indira Jaising and VM Sinha appeared for the appellants. Senior Advocate Mahabir Singh and advocate Purnima Jauhari represented the respondents. Additional Advocate General Aishwarya Bhati represented the State of Uttar Pradesh.

Read the Judgment below. 

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