Breaking:SC Directs All High Courts, District Courts To Constitute Sexual Harassment Complaints Committees In Two Months [Read Order]
In the wake of the recent incident of a lady advocate being assaulted by members of the Bar at the Tis Hazari Courts in Delhi on May 4, the Supreme Court bench of Chief Justice Dipak Misra, Justice D. Y. Chandrachud and Justice A. M. Khanwilkar on Friday directed the Acting Chief Justice of the Delhi High Court to constitute committees to tackle complaints of sexual harassment in all district courts.
The bench also required the Chief Justices of all High Courts to constitute within 2 months similar committees, in pursuance of the landmark judgment of the apex court in Vishaka v. State of Rajasthan and the subsequent Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act of 2013, in all district courts as well as the High Court of the state.
In respect of the FIR and the cross FIR connected to the said incident, the bench ordered the same to be investigated and tried in accordance with the law, restraining the arrest of the accused in both.
The bench noted that the committees so constituted shall not comprise as member any person being an accused in a criminal matter.
Observing that neither party shall attempt to obstruct the judicial proceedings and that peaceful atmosphere shall prevail in Delhi as well as all over the country, The bench recorded that both sides have agreed on fair and speedy trial being a sacrosanct principle of law.
Vesting the investigation to the concerned ACP (Crime Branch), the bench directed the trial to be conducted at the Patiala House Courts. Further, the petitioner, Advocate Afshan Pracha, shall be at liberty to approach the ACP on a reasonable apprehension of threat, who, if satisfied of the same, shall make appropriate arrangements.
The bench, however, clarified that the aforesaid directions shall not operate to restrain a possible settlement of their claims by the parties mutually.
In the course of the stormy hearing in a packed courtroom, when Senior Counsel and President, SCBA Vikas Singh sought to draw the attention of the bench to the cross FIR lodged by another lady advocate, there was an uproar by other advocates- “it is a motivated FIR...the advocate filing it is the junior of the Secretary of the Bar Association (being an accused in the main FIR)...”
“Please take a look at the allegations...The allegations are that Rs. 40,000 cash and a gold chain have been stolen from her...”, added Senior Counsel Indira Jaising.
“That does not matter... an FIR is a FIR under section 154 (Cr. P. C.)...this court in a petition under Article 32 cannot inquire into the genuineness of the FIR...that is a matter of investigation and trial...”, remarked the CJ.
Earlier, the Chief Justice had on Friday observed, “whatever the allegations may be, we do not intend to create any public opinion on it...the difference is at the bar, where all of you have spent decades...there is always a prompter, a man in the wing, one in the public and the protagonist...noone will have an objection as to the constitution of the Vishakha committees, but as to the FIRs, if you find it appropriate, we can record that you have shown mutual respect towards each other and concern for the incidents and put it to rest, or leave it to the High Court...”
Further, Ms. Jaising had elaborated on the sequence of events leading to the registration of the FIRs- “the District Judge had recommended that the existing chambers be demolished and modern chambers be built...the strike on May 4 had stemmed from this and this is the actual grievance of the district court lawyers...we believe that all lawyers should have proper chambers, though its feasibility in terms of land is not certain...”
Indicating the prayers in the petition by Ms. Pracha, she had prayed that “the larger issue be segregated from the individual issue...if Your Lordships would make an independent inquiry into the attack on women advocates...”
“We shall deal with the larger issue, leaving the Delhi High Court to constitute the committee for the inquiry...the High Court is very sensitive to the problems of lady advocates...on May 9, we had intervened only on the grounds of security concerns...”, noted the bench.
Citing doubts regarding the composition of the said committee, Ms. Jaising suggested, “Let there be no committee...let these FIRs be dealt in accordance with the law by the competent court...”
Ms. Jaising had also urged that an opportunity of being heard before the Acting Chief Justice may be afforded prior to the constitution of the committee, “the President and the Secretary of the Bar Association rule the bar...they will get their own nominees on the committee...they have circulated a message on WhatsApp regarding a meeting with the Acting Chief Justice, while we were unable to obtain a meeting yesterday...”
Chief Justice Misra remarked that the bench shall direct the Acting Chief Justice of the Delhi High Court to constitute a committee in accordance with the principles of natural justice and that none of the accused persons be a member thereof.
“We are agreeable to the restraint on any arrests in either FIR, but the non negotiables are that there shall be no attack on women advocates in any court and no interference with their fundamental right to work...when Your Lordships have said that there shall be no arrest, it is equivalent to a bail order, and therefore, the conditions of bail shall apply...please allow us to have the right to approach the court for cancellation of such bail in the event there is any tampering with witnesses...”, Ms. Jaising had pleaded, to much uproar from the opposite side.
To this, the CJ had initially remarked, “if you chew a sweet for too long, it may get bitter...the writ petition is disposed off”. However, the bench had proceeded to observe that neither party shall create an acrimonious atmosphere or tamper with evidence and that both sides shall cooperate in the investigation and trial.
On Friday, Ms. Jaising had also urged that a gender audit be conducted under the supervision of Justice Ruma Pal (retd.), advancing, “male lawyers bring alcohol to consume within their chambers”.
Acknowledging Ms. Jaising’s efforts towards gender sensitivity, The bench required that a compliance report, in respect of the directions issued, be filed by July 15, failing which the apex court shall take suo motu cognizance.