“There appear to be three preliminary objections which have become quite the fashion to be raised by all employers, particularly public sector corporations whenever an industrial dispute is referred to a tribunal for adjudication. One objection is that there is no industry, a second that there is no industrial dispute and the third that the workman is no workman”.
This in an extract from the judgement of the Supreme Court in the matter of S.K. Verma v. Mahesh Chandra and another. In this case, the apex court minced no words to describe pity against vindictive litigation by employers against employees’, especially Public Sector Undertakings. Whenever a case for Industrial Dispute is filed by an employee, the employer takes the shield of preliminary application on the basis of some rigid technical stand. This is primarily in order to cause inconvenience to employees, that employers unnecessarily drag them from one court to another. The Court also held that Public Undertakings are supposed to be model employers and model litigants and not indulge in raising needless objections and litigations.
Brief Facts of the Present Case
In a recent case involving Himalaya Drugs Co. v. Shalaj Nathaniel, Shalaj, an employee of Himalaya Drugs Co. was allegedly removed from his employment illegally. Also, neither was he given compensation nor a prior notice regarding such suspension. The Appropriate Government, when approached, directed the Labour Court to initiate proceedings against the employer and to ascertain whether the termination was illegal and whether he deserved any help. An objection by way of a preliminary application was raised, challenging the fact that the employee in questions here was not a ‘workman’ under the I.D. Act and an application under Order 14 Rule 5 of the C.P.C. for framing additional issues in this regard, were presented. Hence it was contended that the Labour Court had no jurisdiction to hear the case filed under the Industrial Disputes Act. The Labour Court rejected both the application and stated that it would decide conclusively all the issues at the same time. This rejection of preliminary application was challenged in the High Court of Chhattisgarh under Article 227 of the Constitution of India by the employer drawing reference from Rule 2 of Order 14 of the Code of Civil Procedure which states that the Court shall resolve matters relating to jurisdiction as a preliminary issue.
Decision of the High Court
The High Court stated that there was no merit in the Writ Petition filed by the employer. That the judgement of the Labour Court was by no means perverse or erroneous. Also it was held that such a decision required no interference under Article 136 of the Indian Constitution. As far as the provision under Order 14 Rule 2 (preliminary issue) of the Code of Civil Procedure was concerned, it was held that such provisions do not stricto sensu apply to the “industrial adjudications”, even under the Code and in fact after the Amendment Act 1976, the normal rule is to decide all the issues together in a Civil Suit. The Court also expressed the legality of the decision of the Labour Court with regards to the provision under Rule 5 Order 14 of C.P.C. (framing of additional issue).
The High Court, while deciding this petition took a number of issues into consideration.
- Firstly, regarding the need to follow Rule 2 of Order 14 of the Code of Civil Procedure, which requires the Court to decide preliminary issues before others, the Court held that following the Amendment Act 1976, the normal rule is to decide all issues in a civil suit together. Hence the Lower Court was well within its rights to determine all the issues at the same time.
- Secondly with regard to Order 14 Rule 5, the Court held that lower court was perfectly justified in not allowing an application to amend the issues. In this regard, the case of R Umraomal v. P Jagannath was stated, wherein the M.P. High Court held that it is absolutely justified to not frame or amend issues on the basis of an application filed by the petitioner.
- The Court regarded various instances where it had been held that preliminary applications that are filed merely to make the proceedings lengthy should not be entertained. In fact it favoured the idea of all the issues being decided at the same time. For example in the case of P. Maheshwari v. Delhi Administration, the Supreme Court commented on the attitude of employers to protract the scope of the Industrial Disputes Act. It was held that Tribunals especially those adjudicating Labour Disputes where delay leads to misery and jeopardises industrial peace, should decide all issues at the same time without trying some as preliminary issues.
In fact the Court observed a judgement as early as 100 years ago by the Privy Council in the case of Tarakant Banerjee v. Puddomoney Dossey where it was held that in appealable cases, the lower court must pronounce their opinion on all important points at the same time.
The main objective behind allowing the rejection of a preliminary application that objects jurisdiction for the Court was to remove the mischief that was played by employers to deprive the employees’ of their rights. The Supreme Court has clearly stated in the case of D.P. Maheshwari v. Delhi Administration that “Neither the jurisdiction of the High Court under Article 226 of the Indian Constitution, nor the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court should be allowed to be exploited by those who can well afford to wait to the detriment of those who can ill afford to wait by dragging the later from court to court for adjudication of peripheral issues.
In the present case, the High Court held that the Labour Court was right in rejecting the applications for preliminary objection regarding preliminary issue and in non-framing of issue because it is unjustified on the part of the employer to delay the adjudication. Also since the trial was at the preliminary stage for ten years, the Labour Court was instructed to dispose the matter within 3 months in an expeditious manner to prevent any further delay in delivering justice.