SC sets aside PST order, restores penalty of compulsory retirement from service

ISLAMABAD (APP): The Supreme Court had voided the order of the Punjab Service Tribunal (PST) and allowed the appeal filed by the Punjab government against Khadim Hussain Abbasi an employee of Specialized Healthcare and Medical Education Department, Lahore and restored the penalty of compulsory retirement from service imposed upon the Respondent (Khadim) by the departmental authorities on March 09, 2017.

A two-member SC bench comprising Chief Justice Gulzar Ahmed and Justice Ijaz Ul Ahsan had reserved the decision on an appeal filed by the Special Secretary, Specialized Healthcare and Medical Education Department, Lahore against the judgment of Punjab Service Tribunal at Bahawalpur passed on September 18, 2020. Khadim was serving as Chief Technician, District Blood Unit, Sheikh Zayed Hospital, Rahim Yar Khan. He was facing departmental proceeding under Punjab Employees Efficiency, Discipline and Accountability Act, 2006 (PEEDA Act, 2006) on the allegations of misconduct, illegal sale of blood, absence from duty without leave and malpractices.

The 15-page judgment authored by Justice Ijaz Ul Ahsan stated that a copy of this judgment be transmitted to Chairman, Punjab Service Tribunal, Lahore for its circulation amongst all members of the Tribunal for their perusal and adherence to the principles of law enunciated and reiterated herein. “We therefore find that the Tribunal has not only exceeded its jurisdiction but exercised the same in a mariner which is in complete violation of the settled principles of law on the subject. Further, in converting the major penalty of compulsory retirement from service into a minor penalty of forfeiture of past service for a period of two years, the Tribunal has failed to assign any cogent, legally sustainable and valid reasons to support its finding. As such, the impugned judgment can safely be termed as a non speaking judgment which does not meet the test of a judicial verdict. We have repeatedly held that although the Service Tribunal has the discretion to interfere in questions of quantum of punishment, such discretion can neither be arbitrarily and capriciously exercised nor are powers of the Tribunal unqualified or unlimited. Where the Tribunal exercises its discretion to interfere in the penalty awarded by the competent authorities, such discretion has to be exercised in a circumscribed, restricted, carefully calibrated and structured manner duly supported by legally sustainable reasoning, which is conspicuous by its absence in the instant case. We therefore find that the impugned judgment of the Tribunal is not sustainable in law or fact and is liable to be set aside,” it added.

The judgment further read that “the court was unable to understand how and on what basis the Tribunal came to the conclusion that there was absence of “tangible material” in the case of the Respondent against whom all charges stood established in a properly constituted inquiry and who had for all intents and purposes admitted his guilt even before the Tribunal. Further, the Tribunal did not bother to elaborate how the process was “unfair” or “lacked transparency” and no reasons whatsoever were recorded let alone cogent for conclusion of the Tribunal that the punishment was harsh, considering the seriousness of the charges against the Respondent. It also stated that there was lack of discussion of facts of the case, procedure followed and the finding of guilt recorded by the departmental authorities and how there was absence of tangible material or any procedural impropriety. We are constrained to hold that in passing the impugned judgment, the Tribunal has completely ignored and disregarded the basic and foundational principles of law laid down by this Court in various judgments spelling out the parameters for exercise of jurisdiction under Section 5 of the Service Tribunals Act, 1973. In this regard, reference may also be made to the case of Inspector General (Prisons) NWFP, Peshawar and others (ibid) where the practice of undue and unwarranted interference in the penalties awarded by the departmental authorities has been deprecated. Further, without reference to the specific charges against the Respondent which stood established against him, the Tribunal completely ignored the fact that he had in effect admitted the charges and accepted his guilt before it. However, the Tribunal nevertheless thought it fit to launch upon a discussion of philosophy of punishment in a vague, ambiguous and abstract manner which has no place in judicial verdicts. Further, the Tribunal without discussing the facts and circumstances of the case proceeded to observe that, “the guilt and the quantum of severe punishment in the absence of tangible material is against the principle of natural justice to award severe punishment, fair and transparent method should be adopted, the punishment imposed under these circumstances is too harsh,” it added.

The court also observed that the record indicated that the Respondent (Khadim) was proceeded against under PEEDA Act, 2006 on the allegations of misconduct, illegal sale of blood, tempering with the record of the Blood Bank and unauthorized absence from duty for at least 75 days. An inquiry was conducted against him in which he was found guilty of all charges. Surprisingly enough, the only defence taken before the Tribunal was that the punishment may be reduced from major penalty to a minor penalty. No effort whatsoever was made to deny or contest the charges against the Respondent. This constituted admission of charges which were admittedly of a very serious nature. The Tribunal has for reasons best known to it chosen to ignore such a vital and material aspect of the case. Although the judgment of Magistrate, Section 30 Rahirn Yar Khan was produced before the Tribunal, whereby the Respondent had been acquitted of the criminal charges, nothing turns on the same in view of the independent inquiry conducted by the Department and clear and categorical findings of the departmental authorities holding the Respondent guilty of the charges leveled against him. This Court has repeatedly held that departmental proceedings and criminal prosecution are not mutually exclusive, can be proceeded independently and acquittal in criminal proceedings does not affect the outcome of the departmental proceedings. It may be noted that departmental proceedings are undertaken under a different set of laws, are subject to different procedural requirements are based upon different evidentiary principles and a different threshold of proof is to be met. Criminal proceedings on the other hand are undertaken under different set of laws, have different standards of proof are subject to different procedural requirements and different thresholds of proof are required to be met. Therefore, acquittal in criminal proceedings cannot and does not automatically knock off the outcome of the departmental proceedings if all legal and procedural formalities and due process have been followed independently.