April 1, 2011

Ridge Vs Baldwin (Historical case)

A historical case decided by the House of Lords on the point of “principles of natural justice” that ended all the “judicial blacksiding”.  The appellant joined the police force who was appointed as chief constable. The appointment was expressed as subject to “Police Acts and regulation”. He was suspended from duty after he was arrested. Ultimately the watch committee exercised its power of dismissal. The following were two charges against him:
      (1) Criminal conspiracy to corrupt the course of justice and
      (2) Corruption.
During the prosecution, there was no evidence offered against him and accordingly the Judge directed the jury to acquit him. However, certain observations were made against him while acquitting the accused of the charges leveled. Court observed that the observations made in the decision of acquittal damaged the Appellant to some extent. The watch committee held a meeting and unanimously dismissed the appellant.  The appellant was not present at the said meeting, nor was the charged with or given notice of the proposal to dismiss him or particulars of the grounds on which it was based or an opportunity of putting his case. The appellant therefore submitted an appeal against the summary dismissal from service but the Home Secretary dismissed the appeal confirming the order passed by the Watch Committee. The High Court dismissed his claim so also the court of Appeal. Lastly the matter went before the House of Lords.
It appears that he claimed that purported dismissal from service was void and also claimed that he was entitled to payment of salary and pension or alternatively damages.

Reference to “the Act”

“The watch committee, or any two justices having jurisdiction in the borough, may at any time suspend, and the watch committee may at any time dismiss, any borough constable whom they think negligent in the discharge of his duty, or otherwise unfit for the same.”
It was submitted that the watch committee was expected to proceed under the provisions of the Act, but the counter reply was that the Act is inapplicable to the case of the Appellant. Admittedly the provisions contained under the Act conferred discretion upon the Watch committee or any tow justices to take suitable steps against the employee. The provision includes the language like “whom they think” coupled with conditions of “negligence” or “unfitness”. So, when the watch committee intended to exercise its discretion to impose punishment of dismissal from service, it was required of it to form an opinion after scrutinising the existence and/or non-existence of factual aspects. This would require the watch committee to comply with the principles of natural justice, because unless he is granted reasonable and proper opportunity of telling something against the proposed action, it cannot be said that the committee was acting fairly. He was not even told of the charge. His explanation was also not demanded and his was summarily dismissed from service. The watch committee can think of the situation as existed in the statute only when he is called upon to explain about the alleged misconduct.

Dealing with the principles of natural justice Lord Reid observed that:
“The principles Audi alteram partem goes back many centuries in our law and it papers in a multitude of judgments of judges of the highest authority. In modern times opinions have sometimes been expressed to the effect that natural justice is so vague as to be practically meaningless. But I would regard these as tainted by the perennial fallacy that because something cannot be cut or dried or nicely weighed or measure therefore it does not exist. The idea of negligence is equally insusceptible of exact definition but what a reasonable man would regard as fair procedure in particular circumstances and what he would regard as negligence in particular circumstances are equally capable of serving as tests in law, and natural justice as it had been interpreted in the courts is much more definite than that. It appears to me that one reason why the authorities on natural justice have been found difficult to reconcile is that insufficient attention has been paid to the great difference between various kinds odd cases in which it has been sought to apply the principles “ (Observations at page 71)

Speaking on the “procedural impropriety” Lord Reid observed:

“There I find an unbroken line of authority to the effect that an officer cannot lawfully be dismissed without first telling[1] him what is alleged against him and hearing his defence or explanation”. (At page 72 of the reports)
Defending the “principles of natural justice” and safeguarding the right of the appellant, it was further observed that:
“So I would hold that the power of dismissal in the Act of 1882 could not then have been exercised and cannot now be exercised until the watch committee have informed the constable of the grounds on which they propose to proceed and have given him a proper opportunity to present his case in defense. (At page 80 of the reports)

In this case, the solicitor was granted an opportunity of hearing by the committee, but that was again without any charge in this behalf and therefore the same was void of the principles of natural justice. This judgment consistently brought new vitality on the aspect of principles of natural justice that did not only clear the picture about “fair hearing” before imposing any punishment, but the same also repudiated the judicial fallacy of acting “administratively”.

[1] Alike Khemchand’s specification and Purasottamlal Dhingra

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