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Status quo brought by interpretation of local/state laws cannot be deviated from- SC

In the case of Navin Chandra Dhoundiyal v. State of Uttarakhand and Ors. (CIVIL APPEAL NO. 3493/2020), the Supreme Court had underlined the aspect while ruling that long-standing or established status quo brought about by judgments interpreting local or state laws, should not be lightly departed from.

The facts, in this case, initiates with the common question which arises for decision is as to the correct interpretation of a condition in the respondent-University’s statutes regarding the date of superannuation of its teachers. All the appellants, in this case, are working as Professors in various disciplines, in the respondent Kumaun University (hereafter “the University”). By the order dated 21.12.2019  they all were aggrieved. It sets out their respective dates of retirement (which were the last dates in the months they attained the age of superannuation, i.e. 65 years). The appellants thus, relied on Statute No. 16.24 of the University, applicable to them. They contended that they were entitled to continue beyond the last date of the month in which each of them attained the age of superannuation, till the “30th of June following” in terms of that provision.

 The appellants were aggrieved by the office order dated 21.12.2019 and approached the Uttarakhand High Court in writ proceedings. They had stated that they were entitled to continue in service, on extension up to the end of June, 2021. They had relied on a previous judgment of the Division Bench of the High Court – Dr. Indu Singh v State of Uttarakhand (2017 SCC Online 1527).  In that judgment, the Division Bench had, on an interpretation of the relevant provisions (which were worded identically to Statute No. 16.24 as in this case) held that those who retire after 30th June are “entitled to continue till the end of the academic year”. The Division Bench placed emphasis and importance on the legislative intent “to cater to the supreme need to not adversely affect the academic activities of the institution and to safeguard the interest of the students.” The impugned judgment rejected the appellants’ writ petition, thus they upheld that Indu Singh could not be considered as a binding authority. It was also held that Statute No. 16.24 applies to the teachers of the university.

The judges, in this case, had held that “ This court is of the opinion that on a plain interpretation of Statute No. 16.24, including the proviso in question, it is clearly apparent that firstly each teacher attains the age of superannuation on completing 65 years {Statute No. 16.24 (1)}. Secondly, no teacher who attains the age of superannuation has a right or entitlement to reemployment; in fact, the opening expression “No teacher” appears to rule out reemployment of superannuated teachers {Statute No. 16.24 (2)}. Thirdly, and importantly the proviso {to Statute 16.24 (2)} carves out an exception to the main provision, inasmuch as it provides that a teacher whose “date of superannuation does not fall on June 30, shall continue in service till the end of the academic session, that is June 30, following and will be treated as on re-employment from the date immediately following his superannuation till June, 30, following.”

“ This court no doubt held that a teacher could not continue as principal; yet, it decisively ruled that “There is no doubt that the said decision would enable respondent No. 1 to continue as a teacher, which is his substantive appointment, up to 30th June, following the day when he attained the age of 60 years.” In this court’s opinion, such a categorical expression about a pari materia norm was decisive enough for the court to have found itself compelled to follow. Yet, the impugned judgment- with respect, characterized the expression in S.K. Rath11 as obiter. The Division Bench, in this court’s view, erred on this score.”

The issue appears to have lingered and different benches of the Allahabad High Court, in view of the differences in phraseology of rules and statutes of various institutions, seem to have expressed divergent views in the State of Uttar Pradesh. Ultimately, this led to a reference which was answered by a Full Bench, authored by Justice D.Y. Chandrachud12 by the judgment reported as State Of U.P. v Ramesh Chandra Tiwari ((2015 (6) ADJ 579).”

The above analysis would show that the view of the Uttarakhand High Court, as also the Allahabad High Court (now settled by the full bench decision) consistently have been that teachers superannuating are to be treated as re-employed or allowed to continue, in the larger interest of the pupils, has prevailed. If the view that found acceptance with the impugned judgment were to prevail, there would be avoidable disruption in teaching; the likely delay in filling vacancies caused mid-session cannot but be to the detriment of the students. That apart, this court is also of the opinion that if the state or the university wished to depart from the prevailing understanding, appropriate measures could have been taken, putting all the concerned parties to notice, through amendments. In the absence of any such move, the departure from the prevailing understanding through a discordant judgment, as the impugned judgment is, injects uncertainty. Long ago, this court had underlined this aspect while ruling that long standing or established status quo brought about by judgments interpreting local or state laws, should not be lightly departed from, even by this Court, in Raj Narain Pandey v Sant Prasad Tewari & Ors (1973 (2) SCR 835)in the following words:

In the matter of the interpretation of a local statute, the view taken by the High Court over a number of years should normally be adhered to and not disturbed. A different view would not only introduce an element of uncertainty and confusion, it would also have the effect of unsettling transactions which might have been entered into on the faith of those decisions. The doctrine of stare decisis can be aptly invoked in such a situation. As observed by Lord Evershed M.R. in the case of Brownsea Haven Properties v. Poole Corpn.(1958 [Ch] 574), there is well-established authority for the view that a decision of long standing on the basis of which many persons will in the course of time have arranged their affairs should not lightly be disturbed by a superior court not strictly bound itself by the decision.”

This court is consequently of the opinion that the impugned judgment is in error. The very object and intent of the proviso to Statute No.16.24 is to avoid the disruption caused by discontinuity of service of a teaching staff employee or official mid-session. Therefore, the view in Indu Singh15, dealing with an identical statute, was correctly interpreted; the other decisions which dealt with Statute No.16.24 [Professor Sri Krishna Khandelwal and Binod Kumar Singh (supra)] too were correctly decided.”

For the foregoing reasons, the impugned judgment and orders of the High Court are set aside. The appellants are entitled, consequently, to continue till the end of the following June on re-employment. If any of them has been superannuated, he or she shall be issued with orders of reinstatement, with full salary for the period they were out of employment, and allowed to continue till the following June, on re-employment basis. The appeals are allowed without any order as to cost.”

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