Sexual harassment complaints to be investigated with utmost care by institutions: Delhi HC

Sexual harassment complaints to be investigated with utmost care by institutions

Delhi High Court,while hearing a case about sexual harassment within a company,  recently held that adjudication of complaints in such cases needs to be dealt with utmost care and companies cannot escape the responsibility of dragging on such cases.

A single judge bench of Justice Prathiba Singh in its February 1 decision observed that in cases of sexual harassment, the constitution of the Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) under the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) (POSH) Act, 2013, is of “utmost importance”.

“The management and authorities of the organisations have to behave in a responsible manner and on the mere ground that the constitution was incorrect, a re-examination of the whole proceedings cannot be directed under the present facts and circumstances… Adjudication of complaints relating to sexual harassment needs to be dealt with utmost care. The inquiry needs to be by a duly constituted ICC and the same needs to be complete in all aspects. Institutions cannot escape liability for dragging on these sensitive complaints,” Justice Singh held.

The High Court was hearing the plea of a woman who had filed a complaint in July 2019, to the head of the Human Resources department of a company that provides financial services, alleging sexual harassment by a senior official. The complaint was placed before the managing director who forwarded it to Human Resources and the chief vigilance officer of the group company to take up the matter in their ICC as the accused person was an employee of the group company. However, on July 10, 2019, the general manager of the group company marked the complaint back to the financial services company.

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The ICC of the financial services company was formed on July 30, 2019, and proceedings were initiated. The committee was then reconstituted twice in August 2019 and once again on February 24, 2020. A report was submitted in March 2020 directing the accused employee to give a written apology. A letter was written to ICC by the chief general manager of the group company stating that the committee’s recommendations were accepted by the Disciplinary Authority and necessary orders were also issued.

The employee, however, filed an appeal to the Appellate Authority of the group company (Board of Directors) and a re-examination was directed to be conducted by the ICC of the group company. This letter has been challenged by the woman on the ground that since the re-examination has been directed by the group company’s ICC, she no longer wishes to participate in the said inquiry as the complaint dates back to 2019 and she cannot be subjected to a second round of proceedings before the committee, as the same is extremely frustrating and torturous. She submitted she had moved on in life and did not wish to be subjected to a second round before ICC.

On the other hand, the accused employee said that his statutory remedy of appeal under Section 18 of the POSH Act cannot be taken away. The counsel for the group company said that there was a technical error in the constitution of ICC because of which it had taken a decision to get the matter re-examined.

However, the High Court held that the constitution of ICC was being repeatedly changed for some reason or the other while noting that “considerable time which has elapsed cannot be wasted both in respect of the complainant/Petitioner as also in respect of the person against whom the complaint is made”. The court said the matter pertains to 2019 and due to the recent reaction of the group company the matter had come back to square one.

“The complainant cannot be harassed and put to inconvenience to appear again and again before the ICC, even of a connected organisation and be expected to produce witnesses to support her case, all over again. Even the said witnesses may not be available now in the organisation. In the same vein, even Respondent No. 4 against whom the enquiry is to be conducted would also be subjected to harassment and frustration to participate in a second enquiry,” Justice Singh said, directing that the order for re-inquiry shall not be pursued.

The court noted that the woman no longer insisted on the apology and, therefore the accused employee need not give one. “The matter deserves to be given a closure, considering the sentiment expressed in the Court today,” the HC said. Noting that the alleged error was by the group company due to which re-examination was ordered, the High Court directed the company to pay Rs 1 lakh to the woman within four weeks and disposed of the matter.

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