Chiding the State Excise Commissioner Ashwini Joshi for overlooking all procedural niceties while setting aside order passed by District Collectors de-sealing liquor shops by directing her sub-ordinates to file appeal same day and continuing sealing of shops without hearing the aggrieved shopowners, the High Court has set-aside the controversial order dated September 17. Statutory appeal is not an empty formality and, the High Court noted while pointing out that Excise Commissioner stayed the final order of the Collector on the very date it was passed and that too without hearing the petitioners and set aside the impugned order as it was passed in gross violation of the principles of natural justice and fair play.
This overenthusiasm and over-zealousness may cost her career itself, the High Court warned while noting that this was not the first instance involving young officer like Joshi (IAS 2006 batch) “who has a long way to go.”
State Excise charged some liquor shops with delivering the liquor to home of customers, which is impermissible under law and initiated action of suspending their licenses and sealed shop premises under the oral instructions of Excise Commissioner. The shopkeepers filed an appeal before respective District Collectors, who initially passed interim orders granting stay to sealing of shops.
According to petitioners, the very same day, State Excise Commissioner orally directed Superintendent of Excise to file appeal before herself and stayed the order of Collector without hearing petitioner-liquor shopowners as a result, the seals could not be removed. Even after the interim order was confirmed by the Collector, the Superintendent was directed to prefer an appeal on that very date and the Excise Commissioner as an Appellate Authority, stayed the Collector’s order. The petitioners claimed that arguing before the Commissioner would not even be an empty formality, but a farce since she had prejudged the issue.
Dealing with these peculiar facts, the High Court wondered about plight of Superintendent who was forced to follow both Collector being his immediate superior and Excise Commissioner as his ultimate boss. This would encourage the alleged wrong-doers like the petitioners and they would definitely take advantage of the lack of coordination and cooperation so also cordiality between high ranking officials. They would enjoy the spectacle and by approaching higher courts highlighting such matters, the High Court noted with concern while reminding respondent officer that “She is not above the law. She may have all good intentions, but this is not the way to implement the law. She should be aware that justice should not only be done, but seen to be done.”
The State Excise Commissioner stoutly denied the allegations of bias and claimed that action was justified under Maharashtra Prohibition Act as petitioners blatantly violated licence conditions. Senior Advocate Ravi Kadam appearing for the Excise Commissioner also dismissed the apprehension of unfair hearing.
While appreciating the concern to act against violators of law, the High Court also reminded respondent authority that “principles of natural justice as also principles of fairness and equity demand that respondent should act reasonably, fairly and justly. The law endows and entrusts such functionary with enormous powers.
When they wield such powers having far reaching consequences, then such powers ought to be exercised cautiously and carefully. All powers are in the nature of trust. None can then claim that they are untrammeled, unrestricted, uncontrolled and unregulated. They are regulated by law.”
Expressing their disappointment about the manner in which entire issue has been handled, the High Court noted “We are, therefore, most unhappy in the manner in which she has dealt with the order of the Collector, interim as also final. The final order of the Collector compounding the offences may be erroneous, according to her, but that does not give her any right or power to stay it exparte.”