Details of the Complaint
An employee (hereafter referred to as complainant) filed a complaint against another employee (hereafter referred to as respondent) with her employer. The complainant claimed that the respondent acted in a high-handed manner and hurt her self-respect by his arrogant behaviour. The employer constituted an Internal Committee to conduct inquiry on the same. Soon, the complainant filed another complaint to the employer. While the content on the complaint was more or less the same, she mentioned the word ‘sexual harassment’ repeatedly.
The complainant approached the State Commission for Women requesting to refer her complaint to the Local Committee (LC). The reason was that she felt she will not receive justice from the Internal Committee since all the members were subordinate to the respondent. The Local Committee invited both the complainant and respondent. The complainant appeared and submitted a complaint of sexual harassment before the LC. However, the respondent failed to appear before the Local Committee and informed the reason for his absence.
The Local Committee forwarded the complainant’s request to the employer and asked the employer to expedite the inquiry. Since the Local Committee failed to receive any acknowledgment from the employer, they conducted an inquiry into the complaint. They concluded that a prima facie case of sexual harassment is made out and directed the IC to conduct an immediate detailed departmental enquiry against the respondent.
Subsequently, in response to Local Committee’s request, the employer changed the chairperson of the Internal Committee. The newly formed Internal Committee was conducting the inquiry.
Unhappy with the newly formed Internal Committee, the complainant approached the Central Administrative Tribunal requesting to declare that the constitution of the Internal Committee invalid. Central Administrative Tribunal concluded that Local Committee had already conducted a preliminary enquiry and that the Internal Committee formed by the employer is against law due to the sole reason that the petitioner himself was the Head of the Department and therefore a complaint against him can be enquired into only by the Local Committee.
Respondent Approaches the High Court
Aggrieved by the order of the Central Administrative Tribunal, the respondent files a writ petition with the High Court of Judicature at Madras. Upon considering the case, the High Court was to answer the following:
1. Whether the IC and Local Committee can do the preliminary enquiry parallelly?
2. Whether the findings of the Local Committee which is ex-parte need to be complied with?
3. Whether the original complaint had any allegation warranting the institution of formation of Committee for enquiry into sexual harassment of women at workplace?
4. Whether the person who is charged was the employer in the strictest sense?
Local Committee Erred with a Non speaking Exparte Decision
The court answered the first and second issue by saying that any inquiry conducted under the POSH Act has to be a full-fledged one, not a preliminary one. It is also important that the accused is provided an opportunity to defend himself in the inquiry. This observation was made since the Local Committee concluded the inquiry without hearing the side of the respondent.
Hence the inquiry report of the Local Committee and the order upholding the decisions of the Local Committee by the Central Administrative Tribunal were quashed. The court did not make any further comments on whether Local Committee and Internal Committee can conduct parallel inquiries.
Answering the third question, the court stated the following:
Therefore, a solitary allegation of intemperate language against a female employee does not constitute an offence under the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013. Intemperate language used by the petitioner was the essence of the first complaint other than the bias and favouritism he (the petitioner) allegedly exhibited. The constitution of an Internal Committee for enquiry into sexual harassment allegations was not warranted in the instant case.
Answering whether the respondent is to be considered as the employer, the court remarked that when the internal committee was not constituted by the respondent, he cannot be considered as the employer. The Central Administrative Tribunal erred in concluding that the respondent is the employer.
The Central Administrative Tribunal, Madras Bench had erred in concluding that the petitioner was the employer and therefore, the Internal Committee would not have any relevance. In the instant case, the Local Committee gave an erroneous decision with a non speaking order which is also exparte.
Know more about Local Committee from this blog.
Remarkable Observations by the Court
The court commented that if a woman employee is questioned for inefficiency at work, the solution is not to file a sexual harassment complaint.
Every office has to maintain a certain decorum and women employees cannot be allowed to go scot free without completing their assignments. The Administrative Head or the Chief has every right to extract work and he or she has his or her own discretion and prerogatives. If a woman employee is discriminated against due to her inefficiency or for any other official reasons, the recourse for her is not the one taken by this complainant.
Reference: Union of India and Ors. vs Smt. Reva Srinivasan Iyengar and Ors