State employee can't be suspended beyond 90 days sans charges: SC

The Supreme Court, coming down on the governmental practice of putting erring employees on protracted suspension without concluding the matter, decreed on Monday that a government employee can't be kept under suspension for more than 90 days if he or she is not formally informed about the charges.

Based on the principle of human dignity and the right to speedy trial, the landmark verdict is expected to affect lakhs of government employees across India, many of whom are under suspension for years pending departmental proceedings.

"Suspension, specially preceding the formulation of charges, is essentially transitory or temporary in nature, and must perforce be of short duration," a bench headed by Justice Vikramjit Sen said.

If the charge-sheet or memorandum of charges is served within three months, the suspension could be extended, it ruled.

However, the petitioner himself, defence estate officer Ajay Kumar Choudhary, got no relief from the ruling. Since a charge-sheet had already been served on Choudhary, these directions would not apply to his case, the court said.

"If it (suspension) is for an indeterminate period or if its renewal is not based on sound reasoning this would render it punitive in nature," the court said.

It agreed with petitioner's senior counsel Nidhesh Gupta that a suspension order can't continue for an unreasonably long period.

Protracted periods of suspension had become the norm and not the exception that they ought to be, the court said. It drew a parallel with criminal investigation wherein a person accused of heinous crime is released from jail after the expiry of 90 days if police fail to file charges.

The suspended persons suffers even before being charged and "his torment is his knowledge that if and when charged, it will inexorably take an inordinate time for the inquisition or inquiry to come to its culmination". "Much too often this has now become an accompaniment to retirement", the court said, setting aside a direction of the Central Vigilance Commission that allowed departmental proceedings to be kept in abeyance pending a criminal investigation.

The government, however, was free to transfer the officer concerned to any department in any of its offices to ensure the employee did not misuse contacts for obstructing the probe, the court said.

Petitioner Choudhary, was suspended in September 2011 for allegedly issuing wrongful no-objection certificates for the use of a four-acre land parcel in Kashmir. After failing to get relief from the Delhi High Court, Choudhary had moved the apex court in 2013.