A Bombay High Court Bench comprising of Justice V.M. Kanade and Justice A.K. Menon in a recent decision, has ruled that the National Commission for Women “is not entitled to arrive at final conclusions or grant reliefs that a civil or criminal court can.”
According to the Bench, the NCW has no jurisdiction to deliberate upon or come to any conclusion in relation to termination of services, dismissal, recommend to an employee to be given a letter of apology, compensation, relief- bonus, benefits arising out of the dispute and any other reliefs, adding that if in the course of carrying out the investigation it observes violation of women's right, the commission may only recommend measures to prevent a fait accompli to that complainant….. The Commission functions in a recommendatory capacity and is empowered to take up issues relating to women with the authorities concerned. It is not an adjudicatory body yet Respondent No.1 (NCW) complies with the quasi-judicial character of “State” under Article 12 of the Constitution of India.
The bench concluded, “the commission will have jurisdiction to inquire into complaints to arrive ascertain the existence of a prima facie case of violation but should not proceed to adjudicate upon complaints or indict respondents or grant specific reliefs. No doubt it may be necessary for the commission to delve into the facts but it must not arrive at conclusions or grant reliefs. It may however make recommendations on the basis of such facts in the larger interests of women.”
The Court further observed, “However, it does not appear to us that the provisions of section 10(4) invest the commission with powers of a civil court with the intention enabling the commission to arrive at the findings of fact which will bind the parties irretrievably. This can be inferred from the fact that empowerment of the commission under section 10(4) is for the purposes listed in section 10(1). The intention is that the commission is entitled to act as a guardian of women’s' rights with a view to ensuring that women’s' rights are protected or not rendered inaccessible.”
The respondent, Minakshi Maheshwari was employed with KPMG India Pvt. Ltd and filed a case against it with the National Commission of Women. KPMG, along with its Company Secretary, Harsh Sagar Goyal sought the quashing of these proceedings under a Writ of Certiorari, in order to restrain any further proceedings.
The respondent had complained about sexual harassment against her seniors at the workplace in 2006. KPMG terminated her services after she had worked with the company for 14 months.
She also approached the NCW, the Maharashtra State Commission for Women, the Cyber Cell and the National Human Rights Commission.
A Committee was then constituted by the NCW in 2007 to look into her complaint in accordance with Staff Manual of the Company as per guidelines laid down by the Supreme Court in case of Vishaka v. State of Rajasthan. The respondent however chose not to appear before the Committee.
She then approached the Maharashtra State Commission for Women (State Commission) through a complaint.
In late 2007, she sent legal notices to her senior colleagues, including KPMG India senior partner and head of its financial services, Vikram Uttam Singh. Singh was arrested by the Mumbai police.
The petitioner challenged proceedings before the State Commission on the ground of maintainability, as he had already formed a Vishaka committee. It was the Petitioners' case that State Commission had pre-judged issues and was not complying with principles of natural justice. Several of its members had prejudicial views and had publicly aired them. The Petitioner then approached the apex Court, whereas the respondent filed a petition demanding completion of inquiry by the State Commission.
In December 2010, the State Commission expressed their inability to process the complaint for want of resources and under these circumstances; the Respondent approached the National Commission and filed the complaint. The State Commission transferred all records to the National Commission.
Several meetings were then conducted ex-parte, without informing the petitioner. Neither was the petitioner provided with the minutes of the meeting, in violation of the procedure laid down under the National Commission for Women (Procedure) Regulations, 2005.
The NCW submitted that the petition is premature and that the Commission has wide powers to investigate to complaints by women, if the commission feels that it appropriate to do so. It is admitted in the affidavit that hearings before the Commission are not judicial hearings but are investigative in nature and the Commission follows all rules of natural justice. It is denied that the investigation into the petitioners' case is beyond its jurisdiction or it is arbitrary or illegal in any manner. It contended that the petition was just a delay tactic by KPMG.
The Bench was of the view that it is well within the power of the commission to inquire into and determine whether the Vishaka guidelines were followed by an organization. Although in the present case the 1st respondent need not look into this aspect in other cases where the Vishaka guidelines were not formed or offered to be formed by the employers, the commission is empowered to consider this issue. For that matter, the Commission may entertain individual complaints to ascertain whether Vishaka guidelines were followed. Needless to mention such enquiries may not be conducted ex-parte, without notice to the organization in question. The basic rules of natural justice must be followed if the commission finds a prima facie case. If the commission is inclined to reject the complaint in limine notice to the organization need not be issued.
Elaborating on the procedure to be adopted by the NCW, the Court said, “If a prima facie case is made out, the commission must issue notice to the organization and hear them before making recommending remedial measures. The commission is however not empowered to decide the rights of parties and due care must be taken in this behalf. If the commission proceeds to determine any such issues there will be parallel enquiries underway which is hardly desirable. Moreover no purpose will be served by the commission arriving at findings or granting reliefs or issuing directions since the commission is not a Court. The Act does not envisage enforcement of the commission's directions.”
The National Commission for Women is a statutory body set up under the National Commission for Women, Act, 1990 and is empowered to deal with various issues concerning women as set out in the Act.