This is an important judgment where Supreme Court held that in a case pertaining to sexual harassment at workplace, the courts should not get swayed by insignificant discrepancies and hyper-technicalities and assess the impact of any procedural violation against the overall fairness of the inquiry. The judgement pronounced by a bench comprising CJI DY Chandrachud, Justice JB Pardiwala and Justice Manoj Misra held that allegations of sexual harassment or offences of such nature should be considered within the broader context of the case and should not be judged merely on the basis of a procedural violation.
Facts of the Case
In this case, a complaint of sexual harassment was filed by a female employee against the respondent. The complaint was initially submitted to the Inspector General (IG) and subsequently forwarded to several authorities, including the DG SSB, New Delhi, Dy. IG, SSB, SHQ, Tezpur, and the Chairperson of the National Women Rights Commission, New Delhi. The first complaint was filed on August 30, 201. On September 18 2012, the complainant also submitted a second complaint containing additional allegations against the respondent.
Two initial inquiries, a fact-finding inquiry and a Frontier Complaints Committee inquiry, failed to substantiate the allegations. Subsequently, the Ministry of Home Affairs constituted the Central Complaints Committee to investigate the matter. The Central Complaints Committee had to be constituted in view of Clause 9 of the 2006 Standing Order. Clause 9 of the 2006 Standing Order envisages two levels of complaints committee; (i) a Frontier Complaints Committee for the “combatised and in-field officers” (ii) a Central Complaints Committee for the “non-combatised officers”. Since at the time of lodging of the complaint, the respondent was serving as a non-combatised officer, the Central Complaints Committee was formed. While the Central Complaints Committee’s Inquiry was still pending, the Ministry of Home Affairs annulled the Frontier Level Complaints Committee’s Inquiry Report on the ground that the Chairperson of the said Frontier Level Complaints Committee was of an equivalent rank as that of the respondent.
The Central Complaints Committee found the respondent guilty of sexual harassment.
The respondent argued that the allegations were false and claimed that they were made because he had rejected the transfer application of the complainant. As a result, he approached the Central Administrative Tribunal (CAT) seeking the cancellation of the Central Complaints Committee’s inquiry. However, CAT refrained from expressing an opinion on the matter, as the disciplinary proceedings were still pending.
The case then moved to the High Court, which ruled that the Central Complaints Committee had overstepped its jurisdiction by considering the second complaint and had taken on a prosecutorial role during the inquiry. The High Court stated that the jurisdiction of the Central Complaints Committee was limited to the first complaint filed by the complainant and it should not have considered the allegations made in the second complaint. The High Court also found that the committee’s findings were based on surmises and conjectures, characterizing the case as “No Evidence.” Against this order, the Supreme Court was approached.
Findings By The Supreme Court
1. Courts Should Not Get Swayed By Discrepancies and Hyper Technicalities
In its order, Supreme Court ultimately held that the High Court’s judgment was incorrect, and the Central Complaints Committee had not exceeded its jurisdiction by considering the second complaint. The High Court’s decision was set aside, and the order of punishment imposed by the disciplinary authority was upheld.
At the outset, the Supreme Court underlined the gravity of addressing workplace sexual harassment, emphasizing that offenders should not evade legal consequences. The court noted that failure to hold harassers accountable could be distressing for victims, particularly when the wrongdoer faced minimal penalties or remains unpunished. However, the court also recognized the challenge in verifying such allegations, stating that such allegations were easy to make but difficult to disprove. Thus, the court stated that when someone claimed false implication for ulterior motives, the court had a duty to thoroughly examine the evidence and determine the credibility of the accusations.
The Court underlined the importance of not being swayed by insignificant discrepancies or hyper-technicalities when reviewing such cases. It stressed that allegations of this nature should be considered within the broader context of the entire case. The Court also cautioned against showing undue sympathy or leniency towards the individual accused of misconduct.
Regarding the consideration of additional or second complaints, the Court highlighted that this issue is a separate matter to be evaluated based on whether it was filed promptly and not mischievously at a later stage to cause prejudice to the accused. In the specific case at hand, the Central Complaints Committee was established on August 6, 2012, and its first hearing took place on September 25, 2012. The second complaint, filed by the complainant, was submitted on September 18, 2012. This timeline indicated that the second complaint had been promptly submitted shortly after the Central Complaints Committee’s formation and before its first hearing.
The Court emphasized that the Central Complaints Committee’s authority was derived from the 2006 Standing Order, not solely from the complaint itself. Furthermore, even if it were assumed that the committee’s existence was contingent upon the complaint, Clause 10(i) of the 2006 Standing Order envisaged the possibility of filing a complaint with the committee. This indicated that a complaint could be submitted to the committee after it had been constituted. The court further held that in the context of departmental inquiries, strict and technical rules of evidence and procedure did not apply in the same manner as they would in a regular court of law, where witnesses are examined under oath. The Court emphasized that there should be no aversion to considering “hearsay evidence” as long as it had a reasonable nexus and credibility in the case at hand.
2. Role of Courts in Evaluating Validity of Disciplinary Proceedings Limited
In evaluating the validity of the disciplinary proceedings, the Supreme Court emphasized that the primary fact-finding authorities in such cases are the inquiry authority and the disciplinary authority. Therefore, the role of the court, in its power of judicial review, should not be to act as an appellate body or reevaluate the evidence or substitute its own findings for those of the fact-finding authorities. Instead, the scope of judicial review is limited to assessing the propriety of the decision-making process and the fairness of the inquiry procedure.
The Court also highlighted the limited jurisdiction of the High Court in such matters. It stated that the High Court should not function as an appellate authority or replace its own findings with those of the disciplinary authority. Interference by the High Court is only warranted under specific circumstances, added the Supreme Court– “It is no doubt true that if there is “no evidence” or the decision is “so unreasonable that no reasonable man could have ever come to it”, or the decision is “so outrageous” in its defiance of logic or of accepted moral standards that no sensible person who had applied his mind to the question to be decided could have arrived at it “or that it is so absurd that one is satisfied that the decision-maker must have taken leave of his senses”, it calls for interference by a competent court of law.”
3. Impact of Procedural Violation to Be Weighed Against Overall Fairness of Inquiry
The Supreme Court then turned its attention to the question of whether the respondent was asked by the Central Complaints Committee if he pleaded guilty to the allegations presented in the second complaint. The High Court had noted that while the respondent was asked about his plea regarding the allegations in the first complaint, there was no evidence to suggest that a similar exercise had been undertaken concerning the second complaint.
The Supreme Court clarified that the obligation of the Authority to ask the accused whether they pleaded guilty or had any defense was only applicable if the accused had not admitted any of the charges in their written statement of defense or had not submitted any written statement of defense. In the case under consideration, the respondent had indeed filed a written statement of defense addressing all the allegations outlined in the ten points examined by the Committee. Furthermore, the respondent had cross-examined all the witnesses regarding these allegations.
The Court opined that in case of a mere violation of a procedural rule, no prejudice could be claimed to have been caused to the respondent even if it was assumed that he was not asked to plead guilty to the second complaint. The Supreme Court held that the High Court had overlooked the principles established by the Court and had unreasonably set aside the disciplinary authority’s punishment order. This was done without applying the “test of prejudice,” which should have been employed to assess the impact of the procedural violation on the respondent’s rights and the overall fairness of the inquiry.
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