As incidents of sexual misconduct with women lawyers in courts and chamber blocks continue to make news, which includes a lawyer being raped by her senior in Saket court chamber block last year, NGO 'Art of Learning' has moved the Delhi High Court against the failure of the Bar Council of India, the Bar Council of Delhi and the Bar Associations of all district courts in Delhi in providing a safe work environment to women lawyers.
The NGO, through its secretary Kaadambari Puri, a lawyer by profession, contended that the BCI and the BCD, being statutory organisations responsible for regulating the general body of lawyers, have not taken the basic steps to constitute internal committees to look into the cases of sexual harassment of women lawyers.
The petition prayed that directions be issued to the BCI, BCD, the Delhi High Court Bar Association and the Bar Associations of the Rohini, Patiala House, Saket, Dwarka and Karkardooma district courts to "formulate suitable guidelines and/or regulations for ensuring safety and security of women advocates and interns within the precincts of the respective courts that they are seized of".
Among various other prayers, the petition also urged that the respondents be directed to conduct periodic gender sensitization workshops and provide for stringent punishment for sexual harassment which should also be conspicuously displayed in the court premises.
The petition spoke about how the women lawyers face various forms of sexual misconduct in the court premises, including being "observed" "discussed by male lawyers, as to their dress, mannerisms, relationships", "Sexual gossip" and "comments by male lawyers".
It also referred to the July 14, 2018 incident of a lady lawyer being raped by another advocate in his chamber in Saket court post court working hours. The accused was said to be in an inebriated condition.
It is to be noted that in April last year, another woman accused a 60-year advocate of rape in the Rohini court.
A month later, a young lady lawyer was molested by the members of the Bar at the Tis Hazari court complex while she was waiting for the hearing of a bail plea on a day the Bar had struck work. She had taken her grievance to the Supreme Court.
Against this backdrop, the petition said, "The young law students, legal interns and paralegals are particularly prone to harassment as well as others who access the system such as clients or litigants. In India, women, especially those who do not adhere to conventional norms are at a higher risk of sexual harassment in the form of sexual gossip and comments by male lawyers in the courts. The court corridors become a hub where almost every woman lawyer is observed and discussed by male lawyers, as to their dress, mannerisms, relationships. This gossip often gets carried to the judges, courts staff and clerks...... Requests for sexual favours are made. It is considered acceptable if a woman who is seen as having "easy morals" (the assessment of morals often being narrow and subjective) is raped or molested or slandered."
The petition also raised voice against "the widespread prevalence of consumption of alcohol in the court's premises after 5 pm in most courts and unmonitored movement of the lawyers in the chamber premises which further lends to lack of safe environment in the courts".
The NGO said almost routine incidents of misconduct are never reported as the victims fear a backlash from the "male dominated bastions".
"However, if proper guidelines and mechanisms are formed for ensuring the safety and security of women in the said premises and regular workshops and ICC committee are formulated by the Respondents facilitating the safety measures for women lawyers it shall go a long way in prevention of such acts from being committed in the first place," it said.
It added that under the Advocates Act 1961, the Bar Council of India and the relevant State Bar Councils (Bar Council of Delhi in the present case), have been entrusted with the functions of the governance of the work conditions of the advocates practicing within their respective jurisdictions.
"As per Section 6(1)(d) of the Advocates Act, the functions of the State Bar Council shall be to safeguard the rights, privileges and interests of advocates on its roll, whereas Section 7(1)(d) enlists the functions of the Bar Council of India which is to safeguard the rights, privileges and interests of Advocate. One of its key functions as enlisted by BCD is "To safeguard the rights, privileges and interest of advocates on its rolls"; The above self acknowledged responsibility of the Respondents 1 & 2 (BCI ad BCD) makes it mandatory for Respondents to ensure compliance of Sexual Harassment at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act 2013.
However, shockingly there are neither any prevalent or circulated guidelines issued
either by Bar Council of India or Bar Council of Delhi nor is there facilitation of anys sensitization workshops, safety guidelines or proper infrastructure to ensure safety of women lawyers at Chamber & Court premises," it said.
The petition had initially come up before the Chief Justice Rajendra Menon and Justice V Kameswar Rao, which observed that a committee to look into the said issue had been appointed by the high court and it would deliberate on the issue during the second week of January.
The hearing of the PIL has been deferred to January 31 as Justice Rao is on the committee formed by the Delhi High Court to look into the issue.