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Sexual Harassment Charges against Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi

Sexual Harassment Charges against Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi

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  • GS 2 || Polity ||Judiciary || Supreme Court

Why in news?

  • The manner in which a Bench led by Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi convened and suo motu heard a case involving sexual harassment allegations levelled against him by a former Supreme Court employee have thrown up a cloud of doubt about the impartiality of the SC.

The case

  • After online news portals published allegations levelled by a woman against the CJI, the Bench was convened at a short notice.
  • The hearing sparked a public debate on –
    • whether the CJI was sitting as a “judge in his own cause” and
    • whether the Bench should have followed the principles of natural justice by giving the complainant a fair chance to be heard in the first place before passing remarks about her.
  • Former court employee: The complainant, a former junior court assistant, had made her charge in the form of an affidavit, supported by purported evidence, and sent it to 22 judges of the court.
    • It referred to likely witnesses to the alleged sexual harassment and victimisation.
    • The woman, in her mid-thirties, complained of subsequent police harassment against her and alleged that she was unceremoniously dismissed from service.

Court’s stance

  • The three-judge bench of the Supreme Court dismissed allegations leveled by a former staffer of the court against Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi as “wild and baseless, designed to attack and erode the independence of the judiciary”.
  • The CJI who was presiding over the bench, however, did not pass any gag order against the media on reporting this. Instead the bench urged the media to exercise restraint in the matter.
    • The Court left it to the media to act responsibly in publishing anything so that the independence of the judiciary was not affected by the “wild and baseless” allegation against the CJI.

Court dealing

  • Open court hearing: The decision to hold an open court hearing is questionable. A complaint of this nature requires an institutional response on the administrative side.
  • Inquiry: There is an internal process to initiate an inquiry mandated by the law regarding sexual harassment at the workplace.
    • The Supreme Court itself has an internal sub-committee under its Gender Sensitization and Sexual Harassment of Women at Supreme Court (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Guidelines, 2015.
  • In-house procedure: There is a separate ‘in-house procedure’ to deal with complaints against judges, under which their judicial peers, and not outsiders, will examine them.
  • Bench: The CJI ought not to have presided over the special Bench that took up the matter that concerned himself.
    • The onslaught on the complainant’s credibility and the references made to her alleged criminal record when she was not a party to the proceedings are deplorable.
    • It is ironical that as one who was aggrieved that senior-most judges were kept out of Benches handling major cases, he went on to form a Bench that included himself but not the two senior-most judges after him.
    • Nor was there a woman judge on the Bench.

Larger concern

  • Credibility issues: The manner in which the Supreme Court responded on the judicial side to allegations of sexual harassment made by a former employee against the Chief Justice of India is a textbook example of how not to deal with such a complaint.
  • The institution of the Supreme Court has been thrown in a turmoil with its head, the Chief Justice, getting involved in a major controversy with no precedent or rules to resolve the situation.

Way ahead

  • Address institutional issues: The urgency with which the matter was taken up on the judicial side, hurriedly heard by a bench which included the CJI himself but no woman judges, where the CJI held forth against the complainant without including his name in the judicial order has raised legal eyebrows.
  • To supplement the actions already taken on the judicial side by the CJI, the apex court could also respond to the institutional crisis through a full court being convened on the administrative side.
    • The grey area of the rules of the in-house procedure, which has no provisions for dealing with a complaint of this nature against the CJI, can be best tackled at such a forum.
  • Response of judges: More importantly, any response involving all the judges of the Supreme Court is bound to find greater acceptability among jurists and the wider public.
    • It would also shift the spotlight away from the CJI and underline that the institution itself will work out its response.
    • Any process that they suggest will have to exclude the CJI and also not be ad hoc in nature.
    • It would still involve consultation with other brother judges of the apex court for the response to be institutional — and going beyond the individual.

Additional info

Principles of Natural Justice

  • In English law, natural justice is technical terminology for –
    • the rule against bias (nemo iudex in causa sua) and
      • The basis for the rule against bias is the need to maintain public confidence in the legal system. Bias can take the form of actual bias, imputed bias or apparent bias.
    • the right to a fair hearing (audi alteram partem)
      • The right to a fair hearing requires that individuals should not be penalized by decisions affecting their rights or legitimate expectations unless they have been given prior notice of the case, a fair opportunity to answer it, and the opportunity to present their own case.

Mains question

  • What is the law to deal with allegations against sitting judges? Examine the lacunae in law and how should the gap be filled.