SC moves on sexual harassment plea against retired judge

New Delhi, Jan 15: The Supreme Court Wednesday issued notice on a law graduate’s plea to put in place a permanent mechanism to attend to complaints of sexual harassment by sitting and former judges at all levels, including the apex court.

The law graduate has alleged sexual harassment by a judge whom she worked with as an intern in May 2011.

The notice, returnable by Feb 14, has been issued to the centre, the secretary general of the Supreme Court, Justice (retd) Swatanter Kumar, and Attorney General G.E. Vahanvati.

The notice was issued to the centre through the Ministry of Environment and Forest.

An apex court bench of Chief Justice P. Sathasivam, Justice Ranjan Gogoi and Justice Shiva Kirti Singh, while issuing the notice, said: “It is made clear that at this moment, we are not expressing any opinion on the averments/allegations made by the petitioner against the respondent No.2 Justice (retd) Swatanter Kumar.”

Issuing notice, the court said: “On going through various prayers made, particularly, in the light of the assertion made with reference to the prayer (d) of the writ petition, that “as on date there is no mechanism to inquire into the complaints of sexual harassment against all judicial officers, sitting or retired judges, whether while holding office or not”, we are inclined to consider these aspects”.

In view of the importance of the issue to evolve a permanent mechanism to address the complaints of sexual harassment by the judges at all level, the court said it appointed eminent counsel Fali Nariman and P.P. Rao as amicus curiae to assist the court.

“In view of the importance of the issues raised and to formulate a permanent mechanism, we seek assistance of Fali S. Nariman and P.P. Rao, senior members of the Bar, to act as amicus curiae. Office is directed to supply copy of the petition and all connected papers to the learned amicus curiae and the attorney general”, the court said in its order.

The court order came on a petition of a former law intern who has since become a graduate. She alleged sexual harassment by then Supreme Court judge Swatanter Kumar.

At the outset of the hearing, Chief Justice Sathasivam asked: “What is the date of alleged incident?”

When told that it relates to May 28, 2011, he asked why the woman took so long to report the matter.

The then law intern had written to Chief Justice Sathasivam complaining about the alleged sexual harassment, the court said, while noting that the intern had informed her parents and professors about the incident, but not the court, at the time.

“Being a law graduate”, why did she wait for so long, Chief Justice Sathasivam asked. “Our apprehension is that there are so many retired judges and someone levels charges after 20 years when the retired judge is 85 years old.”

At this, senior counsel Harish Salve said there is no permanent mechanism to attend to complaints of sexual harassment against judges and the existing grievance redressal committee was “inappropriate” to entertain complaints against judges.

Let there be a permanent mechanism to look into the complaints of sexual misconduct and there has to be a time frame for making such complaints, be it three months, six months or one year, Salve said.

Reiterating that there must be a screening mechanism, where such complaints could be addressed, Salve said that going to the media was “unpalatable to us and the judges” as the dignity and decorum of the Supreme Court as also the judges’ and officials’ own, was inter-dependent.

The law intern from the Kolkata-based National University of Juridical Sciences has alleged sexual harassment against former apex court judge Swatanter Kumar. Justice Kumar at present heads the National Green Tribunal.

Besides seeking inquiry into her complaint, the intern has also sought direction for setting up a permanent mechanism to inquire into the complaints of sexual harassment against all judicial officers, sitting or retired, whether holding office or not.

She said such a permanent mechanism is contemplated in the Vishaka direction issued by the apex court to take cognisance of sexual harassment at the work place.

IANS