The Delhi High Court on Wednesday agreed to examine a petition by 17 unsuccessful UPSC aspirants seeking publication of the answer key of preliminary civil services examination held earlier this year.
Justice Chandra Dhari Singh rejected UPSC’s contention that the petition was not maintainable before the high court, saying the matter entails adjudication of legal and fundamental rights of the candidates, including those concerning fair play, legitimate expectation and the right to know.
The petitioners, who failed to secure the qualifying marks in the preliminary examination, assailed a June press note issued by the UPSC, which said the answer key would be declared only after the declaration of the final result.
“The claims of the petitioners prima facie pertain to the concerns surrounding the facets of fair play and right to know as well as the fundamental rights of the candidates and as such would require this Court to test the same by delving into the domain of administrative law and constitutional provisions,” the court said in its order.
“Where the enforcement and protection of fundamental rights or any rights of a person is sought, this court cannot look the other way…Accordingly, the petition stands admitted. List for arguments on merits on 26th September 2023,” the court stated.
The Union Public Service Commission had opposed the maintainability of the petition on the ground that only the Central Administrative Tribunal has the power to deal with issues related to recruitment by the UPSC.
The court, which had reserved its order on this aspect last month, concluded that whether the UPSC could be directed to release the answer key did not fall within the scope of “recruitment” of civil servants so as to invoke the exclusive jurisdiction of the Central Administrative Tribunal.
Justice Singh said mere asking for the answer key, which might be used to assess the performance of candidates, did not amount to interference in the process of recruitment.
The court observed the preliminary examination was a stand-alone examination which was qualifying in nature and, in the present case, the petitioners were neither challenging their disqualification nor assailing the examination process but only making a request for disclosure of the answer key before the entire process is completed.
“This court is of the view that there is no hurdle in adjudicating the instant petition,” it said.
The petitioners’ lawyer had argued that timely publication of the answer key of the preliminary civil services examination was in public interest as it would help them assess their capabilities and reduce burden from the system.
They initially sought quashing of the Civil Services Preliminary Examination, 2023 in their petition but subsequently decided to only press their demand for publication of the answer key.
“Not providing to the students the answer key of an exam they have appeared for, not considering the representations of the candidates despite a particular time window being provided for the same, and asking questions, which are disproportionately vague, testing candidates’ ability to answer only on the basis of guesswork, is not only arbitrary but defies all principles of fairness, logic and rationality,” the petition said.
Opposing the plea, the UPSC said the integrity of examination process has to be protected as civil services examinations were structured and have to be conducted in a time bound manner.
Earlier, the court had refused to stay the UPSC’s decision inviting applications for Civil Services (Main) Examination, 2023 while dismissing an application by the petitioners.
The petitioners have said when a competitive exam is conducted, the answer key to multiple choice questions is prepared in advance so it can be released after the exam has been conducted, thereby giving the candidates a fair idea of evaluation.
However, in a press note of June 12, the UPSC said “marks, cut off marks and answer keys of CS(P) Examination, 2023 will be uploaded on the Commission’s website i.e. https://upsc.gov.in only after the entire process of the Civil Services Examination 2023 is over, that is, after the declaration of final result”, the petitioners have claimed.
They have said said almost all state Public Service Commissions and other authorities like the High Court of Delhi in respect of Delhi Judicial Service Examination, IITs, NLUs and IIMs release the provisional answer key within a week of the conduct of an examination and invite objections from the candidates.
They then release the final answer key by modifying their provisional answer key based on the objections, the petitioners have contended.