The Delhi High Court has ordered the Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) to complete the inquiry into complaints of sexual harassment against Ashok Kumar Singh, a teaching staff at Dyal Singh Evening College, within three months, while strictly abiding by the principles of natural justice by allowing the accused to cross-examine the witnesses through a questionnaire so that the identity of the witnesses is not disclosed.
A bench of Acting Chief Justice Gita Mittal and Justice Anu Malhotra directed that the ICC shall proceed in the manner set out by the bench within two weeks from today and complete the same in three months.
It also noted that while the ICC has to return its finding in 90 days as per law, in the instant case, two years had passed before the reports – dated June 30, 2015, and February 12, 2016 -- came to be submitted.
The bench was hearing the appeal filed by Ashok Kumar Singh against the order of the single judge rejecting his prayer regarding not being granted sufficient opportunity either for cross-examination of the witnesses or grant of the opportunity to lead defence.
Singh, though advocate Amit Gupta, had challenged the three reports submitted by the internal complaints committee on the ground that the reports only gave a prima facie conclusion of the complaint against him having substance but did not record any definite conclusion. He had also challenged the reports saying he was denied the opportunity to cross-examine the witnesses or lead evidence in the inquiry proceedings.
The single judge went on to set aside the ICC reports, as they failed to return any categorical finding that the charges against the appellant stood proved, but denied him the relief of cross-examination.
This led to Singh moving the division bench in appeal.
The bench referred to Rule 7 of the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Rules, 2013, which reads that the “Complaints Committee shall make inquiry into the complaint in accordance with the principles of natural justice”.
It also cited a case of 2009 pertaining to Delhi University wherein the Supreme Court had ordered that the identity of the witnesses need not be revealed to the respondent or his counsel and for this purpose, the respondent would be entitled to submit the questionnaire, which will be put to the witnesses for their answers in writing.
The division bench has now set out the manner in which the ICC will have to proceed.
Directions Issued By High Court
(i) The inquiry in the three complaints made by the respondents no.3 to 5 shall begin within two weeks from today from the stage of cross-examination of the complainant’s witnesses whose examination-in-chief has been tendered in writing to the previous ICC.
(ii) The ICC shall intimate the appellant and the respondents no.3 to 5 in writing as well as by e-mail of the date and time of its proceedings.
(iii) The appellant would be allowed to cross-examine the witnesses of the complainant through a questionnaire which would be submitted to the ICC at the time when the witnesses are produced for their cross-examination.
(iv) The witnesses would be called one by one by the ICC to answer the questionnaire which is put to them. Witnesses would answer questionnaire in the presence of the Committee. Every effort shall be made by the ICC to complete the testimony of a single witness the very day on which the recording of the witness cross-examination commences.
(v) So far as witnesses who are common to several complaints are concerned, such common witness shall be cross-examined in one go when the witness appears before the ICC, in respect of all the complaints in which he/she is a witness.
(vi) The appellant and the complainant would not be present at the time when the cross-examination of the witnesses of the complainant is being recorded.
(vii) The ICC shall endeavour to ensure that the witnesses who are being cross-examined, does not confabulate with the witnesses who are yet to be cross-examined.
(viii) The ICC shall make every endeavour to supply a copy of the cross-examination of the complainants’ witnesses to the appellant on the date on which the cross-examination at the earliest, in any case before cross-examination of the next witness.
(ix) After completion of the cross-examination of the complainants’ witnesses, the appellant would be permitted to lead defence evidence. The appellant shall submit the examination-in-chief of the defence witnesses to the ICC in writing within one week of completion of the cross-examination of the complainant’s witness. Copies of the statements of the appellant’s witnesses would immediately be made available to respondents no.3 to 5.
(x) The procedure set out above for cross-examination of the witnesses of the complainant would be followed in identical terms so far as cross-examination of the appellant’s witnesses by the respondents no.3 to 5.
(xi) We need not to emphasise that the proceedings have to be expeditiously concluded. In the event any representation is made by the complainant under Section 12 of the enactment for any interim redressal, the same would be expeditiously decided by the ICC, preferably within one week of the representation.
(xii) After completion of the cross-examination of the witnesses of the appellant, parties shall be given a personal hearing by the ICC.
(xiii) After consideration of recording of the inquiry and the submissions made by the parties, the ICC shall submit separate reports on each complaint along with their recommendations to the Competent Authority which is the Governing Body of the respondent no.2 within 3 days of the conclusion of the submissions.
(xiv) For reasons of expediency, it is directed that the above procedure shall be strictly abided by the ICC.
(xv) We also deem it necessary to direct that in any case any vacancy in Constitution of the ICC occurs, the same shall be filled within one week from the date when it has arisen. It is made clear that in such eventuality, the inquiry shall resume from the stage on which the erstwhile member of the ICC had left the Committee.
(xvi) It is directed that ICC shall complete the above exercise within a total period of three months from today.
(xvii) In view of the above, while maintaining the order of the ld. Single Judge so far as findings recorded in para 8 of the judgment dated 16th February, 2017 is concerned, we hereby set aside the directions made in paras 11 and 12 which shall stand substituted by the directions recorded in para 22 herein above.