Supreme Court gender panel delayed

It has taken the Supreme Court of India 16 years to implement its own guidelines to prevent sexual harassment of women within its court premises.

The apex court had set out guidelines in 1997 in the landmark Vishakha versus State of Rajasthan judgement to make workplaces safe for women. The guidelines mandated all employers to constitute sexual harassment prevention committees.

It follows from the guidelines that all courts in the country should also have such committees with a majority of its members women.

Curiously, women lawyers if subjected to sexual harassment within court premises cannot take their grievances to these committees because of a technicality. These committees are for the benefit of ’employees’ only. Since women lawyers are not technically employees of the court they cannot move the committee for to have their complaints redressed.

The Supreme Court addressed this anomaly in an order issued last July. It directed the setting up of a Gender Sensitisation and Internal Complaints Committee (GSICC) to look into instances of sexual harassment at the Supreme Court of India.

The order was in response to a petition filed before it seeking relief after news reports surfaced “alleging that an employee of the (Delhi) High Court had been filming lady advocates in the chamber toilet”.

The need for setting up of such a committee has become all the more urgent in the wake of allegations of sexual harassment that legal intern Stella James has raised against a now retired Supreme Court judge.

The Supreme Court in its order stated: “The Gender Sensitisation and Sexual Harassment of Women at the Supreme Court of India (Prevention, Prohibition, and Redressal) Regulations, 2013, approved by the Court, create a Gender Sensitisation and Internal Complaints Committee (GSICC) a majority of which will be women, and will consist of seven to thirteen members including judges of the Supreme Court, senior members of the Supreme Court Bar, an elected woman member of the Advocates on Record Association, an elected woman member of the Supreme Court Clerks Association and an outside member nominated by the CJI.”

Unfortunately, even this directive remains a dead letter to date. No members have been nominated to this committee yet. The three associations required to nominate members to the committee have not done their job.

In the absence of such a committee the Supreme Court had to appoint a separate panel to specifically look into the allegations that Ms. James has raised against a judge. Her allegations have also helped in giving the system a necessary wake up call.

The Chief Justice of India has now asked the three associations to send in the names of their nominees by November 30 to make the committee functional.

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This writ petition was filed by two learned Advocates of this Court, Ms. Binu Tamta and Ms. Vibha Datta Makhija, for certain reliefs on the basis of a newspaper report, which had reported about an incident which occurred in Delhi High Court, alleging that an employee of the High Court had been filming lady advocates in the chamber toilet.

The filing of the writ petition led to the question of the formation of a Committee as suggested by this Court in Vishaka and Others vs. State of Rajasthan and Others 1997(6) SCC 241. This led to the further suggestion that proper Regulations be framed in regard to gender sensitisation and to prevent sexual harassment of women at the Supreme Court of India and in other courts as well. In our order dated 23rd April, 2013, we had constituted a sub-Committee with Mr. Fali S. Nariman, learned senior Advocate, as the Chairperson thereof, to look into the reports submitted by Ms. Asha Menon in her capacity as Member Secretary of the National Legal Services Committee and also to look into the draft rules prepared by Ms. Vibha Datta Makhija and, thereafter, to submit a comprehensive set of draft rules on the basis of which orders could be passed.

Such a Report was submitted before us in its draft form and after thorough discussion, the Committee was requested to make certain additions and alterations and now finally the Regulations referred to as – The Gender Sensitisation & Sexual Harassment of Women at the Supreme Court of India (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Regulations, 2013, have been placed before us in its final form. The said Regulations have also been considered by the learned Attorney General, as also the learned Additional Solicitor General, Mr. Sidharth Luthra. All the learned counsel are agreeable that the Regulations, in their present form, may be accepted and appropriate orders may be passed thereupon.

We too have gone through the Regulations and find them to be suitable to tackle the menace of sexual predation in the Court precincts for the present. The same may require changes, if necessary, based on future experience.

We, accordingly, approve of and accept the aforesaid Regulations and direct the Supreme Court in its administrative jurisdiction to take note of the same and to arrange that the same are promulgated and given wide publicity. Copies of the same be sent to the different High Courts in the different States, so that they too may formulate their own Regulations in the same manner, in order to contain harassment of women in court premises. The High Courts may also ensure that the same are implemented at the District level as well.

One of the prayers in the writ petition is for issuance of a mandamus to the respondent No.4 and all the High Courts and subordinate courts to draft and notify its rules for prevention of sexual harassment in court premises, inter alia, providing for permanent internal committees with effective punishment powers of the delinquent, for providing safe working environment for women and matters ancillary thereto. The said prayer is, in fact, covered by the directions given herein-above and may, therefore, be followed in its essence and spirit by all the courts concerned.

The writ petition is disposed of accordingly. What remains to be recorded is our appreciation, first to the two petitioners for having taken the initiative of bringing this matter to the notice of this Court, and then to Mr. Fali S. Nariman and Mr. Anand Grover, learned senior Advocates, and the other Members of the Committee, along with the learned Attorney General and the learned Additional Solicitor General, for extending their help and expertise in framing these Regulations, which we are certain will be acted by all concerned with the seriousness they deserve.

We also express our appreciation of Ms. Asha Menon’s efforts in providing necessary support as a Member of the Committee towards the framing of these Regulations.

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