Vested rights in service matters

Supreme Court in a range of decisions including TR Kapur v. State of Haryana3, K Ravindranath Pai v. State of Karnataka4 and K Narayanan v. State of Karnataka5, has opined that vested rights cannot be impaired by enacting law with retrospective effect and that such statutory rules ought not to result in any discrimination or violation of constitutional rights.[Gelus Ram Sahu and others Vs. Dr. Surendra Kumar Singh and others-18/02/2020]

The law on vested rights in service matters has exhaustively been elaborated in Railway Board v. Rangadhamiah6, wherein it has been stated:

“20. It can, therefore, be said that a rule which operates in futuro so as to govern future rights of those already in service cannot be assailed on the ground of retroactivity as being violative of Articles 14 and 16 of the Constitution, but a rule which seeks to reverse from an anterior date a benefit which has been granted or availed of, e.g., promotion or pay scale, can be assailed as being violative of Articles 14 and 16 of the Constitution to the extent it operates retrospectively.

In many of these decisions the expressions “vested rights” or “accrued rights” have been used while striking down the impugned provisions which had been given retrospective operation so as to have an adverse effect in the matter of promotion, seniority, substantive appointment, etc., of the employees. The said expressions have been used in the context of a right flowing under the relevant rule which was sought to be altered with effect from an anterior date and thereby taking away the benefits available under the rule in force at that time.

It has been held that such an amendment having retrospective operation which has the effect of taking away a benefit already available to the employee under the existing rule is arbitrary, discriminatory and violative of the rights guaranteed under Articles 14 and 16 of the Constitution. …”

The aforestated principle would apply with equal force on the outcome of judicial review also and any new meaning given to a set of Rules/Regulations by the court of law would not ordinarily unsettle the settled appointments or conferment of other service benefits. We are, nevertheless, fully conscious of the legal position that appointment of a candidate who has erroneously secured public employment without fulfillment of minimum qualifications can always be annulled upon discovery of mistake. An appointment which is erroneous or illegal from the very inception does not clothe the appointee with any indefeasible right and such appointment is always subject to correctional decisions.


3 1986 Supp SCC 584.

4 1995 Supp (2) SCC 246.

5 1994 Supp (1) SCC 44.

6 (1997) 6 SCC 623