|COURT:||Patna High Court|
|CORAM:||Mihir Kumar Jha|
|CATCH WORDS:||accountability, strictures|
|DATE:||November 30, 2015 (Date of pronouncement)|
|DATE:||January 13, 2016 (Date of publication)|
|FILE:||Click here to download the file in pdf format|
|Entire law on accountability of public officials for acts of omission and commission explained. Customs officials directed to pay costs of Rs. 14 lakh + interest @ 9% p.a. from personal account & to face disciplinary action for “high-handedness”, arbitrariness” and seeking to “hoodwink” Court|
(i) By now, the law is well settled that the public officers have to be also held accountable for their acts of omission and commission. Reference in this connection may be made to the judgment of the Apex Court in the case of Lucknow Development Authority Vs. M.K. Gupta reported in 1994(1) SCC 243, in the case of State of A.P. Vs. Food Corporation of India reported in 2004(13) SCC 53 and in the case of Delhi Airtech Services Private Limited and Anr. Vs. State of Uttar Pradesh & Anr. reported in 2011(9) SCC 354. The apex Court in this regard in the case of Lucknow Development Authority (supra) had approved the following observation of Misfeasance in public office as explained by Wade in his book of Administrative Law
“Even where there is no ministerial duty as above, and even where no recognized tort such as trespass, nuisance, or negligence is committed, public authorities or officers may be liable in damages for malicious, deliberate or injurious wrong-doing. There is thus a tort which has been called misfeasance in public office, and which includes malicious abuse of power, deliberate maladministration, and perhaps also other unlawful acts causing injury.”
(ii) Having held so, the Apex Court in the case of Lucknow Development Authority (supra) had also laid down law as with regard to fixing responsibility on the erring government officials in the following terms:-
“11. Today the issue thus is not only of award of compensation but who should bear the brunt. The concept of authority and power exercised by public functionaries has many dimensions. It has undergone tremendous change with passage of time and change in socioeconomic outlook. The authority empowered to function under a statute while exercising power discharges public duty. It has to act to subserve general welfare and common good. In discharging this duty honestly and bona fide, loss may accrue to any person. And he may claim compensation which may in circumstances be payable. But where the duty is performed capriciously or the exercise of power results in harassment and agony then the responsibility to pay the loss determined should be whose? In a modem society no authority can arrogate to itself the power to act in a manner which is arbitrary. It is unfortunate that matters which require immediate attention linger on and the man in the street is made to run from one end to other with no result. The culture of window clearance appears to be totally dead. Even in ordinary matters a common man who has neither the political backing nor the financial strength to match the inaction in public oriented departments gets frustrated and it erodes the credibility in the system. Public administration, no doubt involves a vast amount of administrative discretion which shields the action of administrative authority. But where it is found that exercise of discretion was mala fide and the complainant is entitled to compensation for mental and physical harassment then the officer can no more claim to be under protective cover. When a citizen seeks to recover compensation from a public authority in respect of injuries suffered by him for capricious exercise of power and the National Commission finds it duly proved then it has a statutory obligation to award the same. It was never more necessary than today when even social obligations are regulated by grant of statutory powers. The test of permissive form of grant is over. It is now imperative and implicit in the exercise of power that it should be for the sake of society. When the court directs payment of damages or compensation against the State the ultimate sufferer is the common man. It is the tax payers’ money which is paid for inaction of those who are entrusted under the Act to discharge their duties in accordance with law. It is, therefore, necessary that the Commission when it is satisfied that a complainant is entitled to compensation for harassment or mental agony or oppression, which finding of course should be recorded carefully on material and convincing circumstances and not lightly, then it should further direct the department concerned to pay the amount to the complainant from the public fund immediately but to recover the same from those who are found responsible for such unpardonable behaviour by dividing it proportionately where there are more than one functionaries.”
(iii) A similar view was taken by the Apex Court in the case of Food Corporation of India (supra) wherein recovery of costs in the frivolous legal proceeding was sought to be made from the officer concerned for negligence in prosecuting litigation on behalf of the State. The Apex Court in this regard had held as follows:-
“2. In this view, while dismissing the applications seeking condonation of delay, we direct that enquiry be made forthwith by the State Government as to the person responsible for this state of affairs, recover from such person the costs involved in filing these petitions and submit the report to this Court within a period of four weeks.”
(iv) In the case of Delhi Aristech Services (P) Ltd. (supra) relating to the lapses by the public officials in the land acquisition resulting into huge loss to the government exchequer on account of negligence and/or overt act of the officials had also held as follows:-
“213. These authorities are instrumentalities of the State and the officers are empowered to exercise the power on behalf of the State. Such exercise of power attains greater significance when it arises from the statutory provisions. The level of expectation of timely and just performance of duty is higher, as compared to the cases where the power is executively exercised in discharge of its regular business. Thus, all administrative norms and principles of fair performance are applicable to them with equal force, as they are to the Government department, if not with a greater rigour. The well established precepts of public trust and public accountability are fully applicable to the functions which emerge from the public servants or even the persons holding public office.
214. In the case of State of Bihar v. Subhash Singh [(1997) 4 SCC 430], this Court, in exercise of the powers of judicial review, stated that the doctrine of `full faith and credit’ applies to the acts 108 done by the officers in the hierarchy of the State. They have to faithfully discharge their duties to elongate public purpose.
215. The concept of public accountability and performance of functions takes in its ambit, proper and timely action in accordance with law. Public duty and public obligation both are essentials of good administration whether by the State or its instrumentalities. In the case of Centre for Public Interest Litigation & Anr. v. Union of India & Anr. [(2005) 8 SCC 202], this Court declared the dictum that State actions causing loss are actionable under public law. This is a result of innovation, a new tool with the courts which are the protectors of civil liberties of the citizens and would ensure protection against devastating results of State action. The principles of public accountability and transparency in State action are applicable to cases of executive or statutory exercise of power, besides requiring that such actions also not lack bona fides. All these principles enunciated by the Court over a passage of time clearly mandate that public officers are answerable for both their inaction and irresponsible actions. If what ought to have been done is not done, responsibility should be fixed on the erring officers; then alone, the real public purpose of an answerable administration would be satisfied.
216. The doctrine of `full faith and credit’ applies to the acts done by the officers. There is a presumptive evidence of regularity in official acts, done or performed, and there should be faithful discharge of duties to elongate public purpose in accordance with the procedure prescribed. Avoidance and delay in decision making process in Government hierarchy is a matter of growing concern. Sometimes delayed decisions can cause prejudice to the rights of the parties besides there being violation of the statutory rule.
217. This Court had occasion to express its concern in different cases from time to time in relation to such matters. In the case of State of Andhra Pradesh v. Food Corporation of India [(2004) 13 SCC 53], this Court observed that it is a known fact that in transactions of Government business, no one would own personal responsibility and decisions would be leisurely taken at various levels.
218. Principles of public accountability are applicable to such officers/officials with all their rigour. Greater the power to decide, higher is the responsibility to be just and fair. The dimensions of administrative law permit judicial intervention in decisions, though of administrative nature, which are ex facie discriminatory. The adverse impact of lack of probity in discharge of public duties can result in varied defects, not only in the decision making process but in the final decision as well. Every officer in the hierarchy of the State, by virtue of his being `public officer’ or `public servant’, is accountable for his decisions to the public as well as to the State. This concept of dual responsibility should be applied with its rigours in the larger public interest and for proper governance.”
(v) Recently, the Full Bench of this Court in the matter of illegal appointment had adopted the same yardstick for fixing responsibility against the government officers in the case of Ram Sevak Yadav & Anr. Vs. The State of Bihar & Anr. reported in 2013(1)PLJR 964 wherein it was held as follows:-
“41. The public power to make appointment on public posts is conferred for public good. The power is given to the officer concerned by the government in trust, that it shall be used and not abused. If the trust is belied, the protection conferred upon a government servant stands denuded. The answerability and accountability is then individual of the officer. The government is duty bound to take appropriate civil/ criminal action against the officer. The illegality in the appointment is not a one way street. If there was someone willing to pay a price for the job, there was another waiting to take advantage of the same by fixing a price. It is not without reason that majority of such appointments relate to class III and IV posts. The standard by which the government professes to act is the same standard by which its action shall be judged. Therefore, whenever the government terminates an appointment being illegal, it is the constitutional duty of the government to simultaneously take action against the officials who belied the trust of the government. Those who made hay while the sun shined must see the darker cloudy days also. In 1995(2) PLJR 573 (DB) (Bimal Kishore Rai v. State of Bihar) it was directed:
“16. In cases where an appointment is found to have been illegally made, the courts quash the appointment and, therefore, the appointee suffers the consequence. However, the real guilty person, namely, the appointing authority does scot free. The result is that even though large number of such appointments have been quashed by the courts, the appointing authorities have showed total indifference to the orders passed by the courts, and they continue to make such appointments. It is a well-known fact, so far as this state is concerned, that appointment in majority of cases has to be bought. The ordinary citizen who has concern for the law and morality, must suffer, even if in terms of capability and merit he is far superior to the unscrupulous ones, who managed the appontments. We have, therefore, felt the need to issue some directions in this regard, so that the appointing authorities, who are primarily guilty in such matters, and who exploit the jobseekers taking advantage of their hardship are equally punished when such illegal appointments are brought to the notice of the government. I, therefore, direct that in each and every case where an appointment is said to have been illegally made, in the sense that the rules governing the appointment is made by flouting the law in such a manner that the motive of the appointing authority becomes suspect, simultaneously with the cancellation of such illegal appointment, action must be initiated against the appointing authority, and in appropriate cases they should be immediately suspended pending departmental proceedings. If such action is not taken, courts will doubt the genuineness of the reason shown by the government for cancellation of such appointment. I direct that this should be complied with by the government in each and every case wehre an appointment is sought to be cancelled on the ground that it was illegally made in circumstances which give rise to a suspicion that the appointment was made on extraneous consideration, including money.”
42. Court orders are not mere platitudes or idealistic rhetoric incantation. They are meant to be complied with. We therefore direct the State Govenrment to identify the officials concerned with the present appointments and take appropriate action against them in accordance with law and expeditiousness. Let a report be then submitted within eight weeks.”
(vi) Thus, when this Court has found that the petitioners have been put to a loss of at least Rs.14,69,650/- on account of complete deterioration of quality of split betel nuts solely on account of deliberate laches on the part of the officials of the Custom Department it would direct respondent no.2 to pay a sum of Rs.14,69,650/- along with interest at the rate of 9% per annum for the period 28.3.2013, the date on which the order of provisional release of the seized article was passed by the competent authority to the order directing release of the seized articles dated 9.8.2014 within a period of three months from today.
(vii) It is, however, made clear that such amount, which has to be paid by way of compensation for the loss caused to the petitioners on account of delay of nearly 1½ years in release of the seized articles, shall be recovered from the erring officials and for the purposes of fixing individual responsibility on such erring officials this Court would direct the Chairman of Central Board of Excise and Customs Department of Revenue, New Delhi to get an enquiry conducted by an Officer not below in the rank of Chief Commissioner of Customs who must not be posted and/or associated in any manner with Patna Zone of the Custom Department.
(viii) Upon completion of such enquiry and upon submission of enquiry report appropriate action under the orders of Chairman Central Board of Excise and Customs, New Delhi be taken against erring officials not only for recovery of the amount directed to be paid under this judgment to the petitioners but also for initiating and concluding disciplinary proceedings by the competent authority against the erring officials of Customs Department of Patna zone who are found to have caused delay in release of the seized articles of the petitioners in any part of period in between 28.3.2013 to 9.8.2014. This whole exercise must be completed within a period of six months from the date of receipt of this judgment by the Chairman of the Central Board of Excise and Customs, New Delhi, who having taken his action as directed above shall also submit his action taken report to the registry of this Court on or before 30th of June, 2016. 85. With the aforementioned observations and directions, this writ application is allowed with a cost of Rs. 25,000/- quantified by this Court for coercing and compelling the petitioners to file this writ petition for release of their seized betel nuts to be paid by the Respondents to the petitioners within a period of three months from today.
(ix) It is, however, made clear that irrespective of initiation and conclusion of the aforesaid proceedings against the erring officials of Customs department of Patna zone by the Chairman of Central Board of Excise and Customs, the payment of the amount of Rs.14,69,650/- alongwith interest at the rate of 9% per annum from 28.3.2013 to 9.8.2014 must be made to the petitioners within a period of three months from today, failing which the amount of interest on the amount of Rs. 14,69,650/- shall stand enhanced from 9% per annum to 18% per annum from 28.3.2013 till the date of its actual payment.
(x) Let a copy of this judgment be sent immediately to not only the Chairman of Central Board of Excise and Customs Department of Revenue, Ministry of Finance, New Delhi, but also to the Commissioner of Customs (Preventive), respondent no.2, for its compliance in letter and spirit.