In its recent order dated 17 August 2023 in the case of Dr Kavita Yadav v The Secretary, Ministry of Health and Family Welfare Department and Others [Civil Appeal Number 5010 of 2023] (Kavita Yadav Case), the Supreme Court of India (Court) held that women who have been engaged as fixed-term employees and who fulfill the eligibility criteria for maternity benefit under the Maternity Benefit Act 1961 (MB Act) would be entitled to full 'maternity benefit' even if the period of such benefit exceeds the term of contract of employment. It may be noted that the term 'maternity benefit' as defined under the MB Act refers not to maternity leave but instead to the payment that a woman is entitled to receive on account of her pregnancy. In this context, we set out below an overview of the factual background and the position taken by the parties in the matter, and the key principles propounded by the Court.
Case for and against the appeal
In the case at hand, the appellant, a pathologist, was appointed as Senior Resident (Pathology) at Janakpuri Super Speciality Hospital, for a fixed term, extending up to 11 June 2017. She applied for a maternity benefit commencing from 1 June 2017, but the employer informed her that only 11 days of the said benefit could be granted given her tenure ending on 11 June 2017. The appellant challenged the said action before the Central Administrative Tribunal, Principal Bench, New Delhi (Tribunal) and subsequently before the Delhi High Court. However, her challenge in both cases was unsuccessful.
The Delhi High Court had inter alia opined that the MB Act stipulates for maternity benefits to be provided by the employer for the period of the concerned woman's 'actual absence'. As such, in case of fixed-term employment, pursuant to cessation of the employment term, there would be no question of the woman employee's 'actual absence' since she would not be expected to remain 'present' post cessation of employment.
The appellant's counsel contended that once the appellant becomes eligible to avail maternity benefit under the MB Act, she would be entitled to full benefit set out therein, even in the capacity of a fixed term employee.
The respondent's counsel submitted that pursuant to cessation of the contractually stipulated service tenure, one cannot notionally extend such period by granting full maternity benefit, and accordingly, the appellant would be entitled to the benefit only within the contractually agreed employment period.
Court's analysis and discussion
The Court referred to Section 12(2)(a) of the MB Act which stipulates that maternity benefit is to be provided even for a woman employee who is dismissed or discharged at any time during her pregnancy (which itself is allowed only when a woman has not already absented herself as a result of the pregnancy), if such woman employee would have been entitled to such benefit otherwise (i.e., but for such discharge or dismissal). Drawing an analogy, when a fixed-term employee's tenure at an establishment ceases upon expiry of the period specified in the employment contract, the same by itself should not come in the way of extending to her the fullest extent of the benefit available under the law.
The Court also referred to its previous judgments that upheld the position of extending maternity benefit to fixed-term employees and further opined that the MB Act gives overriding effect to the statute over any award, agreement, or contract of service.
In view of the above, on a combined reading of the provisions of the MB Act and the factual matrix as regards the instant case, the Court held that so long as the appellant has fulfilled the eligibility criteria specified under the MB Act, she would be entitled to full maternity benefits even though the period of such benefits exceeds her contractual term.
Accordingly, the Court set aside the judgment and order of the Delhi High Court and declared that the Tribunal's decision shall also stand invalidated. The Court allowed the appeal and directed the employer to extend the full maternity benefit to the appellant under the MB Act (after adjusting against any sum already paid in this regard) within a period of 3 months from the date of communication of the Court's order. It also quashed the employer's orders that had rejected the appellant's claims.
It has been a settled legal position that an eligible woman including a woman employee engaged on a fixed-term basis shall be entitled to maternity benefit under the MB Act. However, the aspect of whether the maternity benefit can be availed by a fixed-term woman employee even if the period of such benefit overshoots the tenure of her contract remained unanswered until now. This issue had been a subject matter of debate and it may be observed that the views taken by High Courts were also inconsistent in this regard.
In the case of Artiben R Thakkar v Delhi Pharmaceuticals Science and Research University and Others [Letters Patent Appeal Number 187 of 2018], the Delhi High Court held that, "A contractual job comes to an end with efflux of time and the person holding the post has no right to continue on the post and enjoy its benefits. In the instant case, the contract of the appellant expired on 30.06.2017 and thus she cannot take benefit of maternity leave beyond this period. Therefore, the prayer of the appellant for such benefits have ceased from the date of the termination of the contract i.e. 30.06.2017."
To the contrary, while taking a more employee-favourable approach, in the case of Dr Baba Saheb Ambedkar Hospital, Government of NCT of Delhi and Others v Krati Mehrotra [Writ Petition (Civil) Number 1278 of 2020], the Delhi High Court opined and held that, "The benefit granted to the respondent under Section 5 of the 1961 Act should have a full play, in our view, once the prerequisites contained therein are fulfilled by the claimant i.e., the woman-employee. The 1961 Act is a social legislation that should be worked in a manner that progresses not only the best interest of the women-employee but also of the child, both at the pre-natal and post-natal stage... Without financial wherewithal, the interest of women-employee and her child is likely to be severely impacted."
In view of the above, the Court's order in the Kavita Yadav Case assumes relevance given that this dichotomy pertaining to the legal position on the subject at hand has now been put to rest. Employers should make note of this decision when assessing the full and final dues payable to a fixed-term woman employee at the time of cessation of her employment if she is otherwise qualified to receive maternity benefit under the MB Act on account of her pregnancy.
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