In one of the recent judgments, the Hon’ble High Court of Delhi (“Delhi High Court”) has adjudicated on the issue regarding entitlement of maternity benefit to an ad-hoc employee beyond the period of employment contract under the Maternity Benefit Act, 1961 (hereinafter referred to as the “Maternity Benefit Act”). The said question of law was posed before the division bench of the Delhi High Court comprising of Justice Rajiv Shakdher and Justice Talwant Singh in the matter of Dr. Baba Saheb Ambedkar Hospital Govt. of NCT of Delhi & Anr. Vs. Dr. Krati Mehrotra. The judgement was pronounced by Delhi High Court on March 11, 2022.
The issue arose in the backdrop of the instances wherein Dr. Krati Mehrotra (hereinafter referred to as the “Respondent”) appointed as senior resident on an ad-hoc basis in the Department of Dermatology at the Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar Memorial Hospital, Government of Delhi (hereinafter referred to as the “Petitioner”), was denied maternity benefit during her pregnancy which extends beyond the period of her employment with the Petitioner. The appointment for her post was said to be for a period of 45 (forty-five) to 89 (eighty-nine) days or till a regular incumbent joins the position, whichever came first. However, Respondent’s tenure was extended after every 89 (eighty-nine) days, with a day’s gap for the next contract to be renewed. On April 17, 2017, the Respondent applied for emergency maternity leave due to pregnancy complications as she was suffering from antepartum hemorrhage.
The Petitioner, to the contrary, terminated her employment via an office order dated May 23, 2017, with the order coming into effect from April 24, 2017.
Aggrieved by the order, the Respondent approached the Central Administrative Tribunal (“Tribunal”) and the National Commission for Women, following which the Petitioner agreed to maternity benefits till the time period of her employment contract expiration dated June 27, 2017. The Respondent then appealed before the Tribunal wherein her plea was granted. On being aggrieved by the decision of the Tribunal, the Petitioner filed a writ petition before the Delhi High Court challenging the decision of the Tribunal.
Analysis by the Court
Having analyzed the object of the Maternity Benefit Act, the Delhi High Court opined that the legislation seeks to regulate the employment of women in establishments for period before and after childbirth, and endeavours to provide the maximum maternity benefit. The Delhi High Court also relied on the judgment of the Hon’ble Supreme Court in the matter of Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) v. Female Workers (Muster Roll) & Anr. (2000) 3 SCC 224 wherein the Supreme Court established that the provisions of the Maternity Benefit Act do not differentiate between a permanent and a contractual employee, or even a daily wage (muster roll) worker. The Delhi High Court further opined that there are no ties between maternity benefits and tenure of employees. There are only two limiting factors for maternity benefits, firstly, the female employee should have worked in an establishment of her employer for a minimum period of 80 (eighty) days in 12 (twelve) months immediately preceding the date and; secondly, the maximum period for which female employee can avail maternity leave benefit cannot exceed 26 (twenty-six) weeks, of which, not more than 8 (eight) weeks shall precede the date of her expected delivery. Thus, as long as conception occurs during the tenure of the employment, the female employee should be entitled to maternity benefits under the Maternity Benefit Act. The Delhi High Court also observed that if the pre-requisites under Section 5 of the Maternity Benefit Act are fulfilled then the female employee is entitled to full benefits under the Maternity Benefit Act. The legislation is a “social legislation” and must be utilized in the best interests of the female employee and the child, at the pre-birth and post-birth stage.
The Petitioner relied on the office memorandum dated March 14, 2018, issued by the Health and Family Welfare Department which states that maternity benefit to ad-hoc employee is required to be carefully confined to the period for which ad-hoc employee has been appointed. However, the Delhi High Court observed that the office memorandum on which the Petitioner has relied would have no applicability due to the following reasons: (a) it is a guideline and; (b) the circular cannot go beyond the ambit of the provisions of the Maternity Benefit Act. The Delhi High Court further stated that circulars in the form of guidelines cannot impede the judicial interpretation that a court may place on the scope and ambit of a provision under the Maternity Benefit Act. Since the purpose of the Act, upon reading the preamble, is to grant benefits to the female employees both during and after childbirth, the Delhi High Court opined that this cannot be tied up with the tenure of the contract.
Observation by the Delhi High Court
Having cited the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Delhi High Court opined that without the support of the Maternity Benefit Act and the financial resources, the interest of the female employee and her child, will be severely hampered. Thus, the Delhi High Court upheld the order passed by the Tribunal.
It is interesting to note that the Delhi High Court had a strict interpretation of the Maternity Benefit Act wherein upon fulfilling the pre-requisites enumerated under Section 5 of the Maternity Benefit Act, an ad-hoc employee would also be entitled to the maternity benefits even beyond the contractual period of employment. The Delhi High Court ensured that the ad-hoc employee is treated at par with the permanent employee when it comes to the maternity benefits as it is in the best interests of the female employee and the child. The said decision of the Delhi High Court shall act as a leading pathway for the female employee employed on ad-hoc basis to claim maternity benefit under the provisions of the Maternity Benefit Act.