Karnataka HC Reserves Orders On Plea By Christ Law College Students Challenging 1-Yr Suspension In Sexual Harassment Case
The Karnataka High Court recently heard a petition filed by two students of School of Law, Christ University, against the decision of the Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) of the varsity to suspend them for one year for sexually harassing their fellow classmate for a year. The argument forwarded by both the petitioners was that the procedure followed by the ICC was malafide and inconsistent with the internal regulations, while the respondents argued that the procedure was sound and all principles of natural justice were followed.
The material facts of the case were that on March 22, 2018, Suresh, using Ramesh's phone [names changed], sent to the complainant, on Snapchat app, a bare-chested photograph of Ramesh along with the caption "This is mine, send urs". The complainant, feeling sexually harassed, took a screenshot and approached the Counsellor of Christ University on March 24, who called Suresh and Ramesh to show them the image and to give them an opportunity to explain themselves. The two subsequently admitted to sending the image, with one then issuing an apology on March 26.
At this point, the complainant sent a mail to the director, School of Law, Christ University, who advised her to file an official complaint with the university's ICC, which she did on April 4. The following day, the ICC issued a notice to the concerned parties, and conducted its enquiry on April 6. The ICC then issued its report recommending a 1-year suspension on April 11, 2018. The two petitioners preferred an appeal to the Internal Complaints Appellate Committee (ICAC) of Christ University on May 9, which dismissed the matter on May 16.
The petitioners alleged that the procedure was incorrect and violative of the principles of natural justice. The counsel made the following submissions:
- No copy of the written complaint was given to the petitioners;
- There was no gap of seven days between the issuance of the notice by the ICC and the holding of the enquiry;
- The ICC did not have sufficient quorum on April 6, as two out of the total nine members were missing; and
- The manner in which the petitioners were treated indicated a pre-determination of guilt and bias on part of the ICC.
The petitioners argued that as the image and text were sent inadvertently and by mistake, the suspension ought to be dismissed due to a lack of mens rea.
Counsel for Christ University then responded by highlighting that the petitioners were well aware of the allegations much before the ICC issued its formal notice on April 5.
Counsel for the respondent-complainant then made arguments before the court, by first stressing that the very act of sending the image and its accompanying caption constituted sexual harassment. Citing Sub-Regulations 3(b), (c) and (e) of the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013, the counsel argued that this act constituted a request for sexual favours, contained sexually-coloured remarks and showed pornography, and as such qualified as sexual harassment. The counsel then stressed that there was no requirement of mens rea under the 2013 Act.
The respondent-complainant then went on to argue that under the university regulations, the quorum stipulated was two-thirds, which was present. The counsel argued that the primary purpose of furnishing a copy of the complaint was to provide an opportunity to the petitioners to defend themselves and given that the written complaint was primarily comprised of the image which was shown multiple times to the petitioners on and before April 6, there was no procedural irregularity. Furthermore, given the sequence of events prior to the enquiry on April 6, where there had already been an admission of guilt, the need to both send a copy as well as wait for seven days was removed.
The counsel then cited the judgment of the Karnataka High Court in Nilesh Kumar & Ors. v. State of Karnataka & Ors. [ILR 2013 Kar 155], which contained references to multiple judgments by the Supreme Court. In that case, the court had observed that "non-furnishing of copy of the Enquiry report to the dismissed employee cannot ipso facto result in setting aside the dismissal order" and that "the rules of natural justice must not be stretched" to further "hyper-technical" arguments as it is often the case that "the people who have done wrong seek to invoke the rules of natural justice so as to avoid the consequences."
The court reserved judgment on the case.