Scope of anti-sexual harassment law not limited to cases in same department: HC

The Delhi High Court has held that there is “absolutely nothing” that limits the scope of the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013 (SHW Act) to cases where a woman employee is sexually harassed by another employee working in her own office or department, but also extends to cases where the delinquent employee is employed elsewhere.

The court said equalising of sexes in every aspect of life is a constitutional imperative and the working environment is required to be as safe and secure for women as it is for men.

“Even an apprehension, by a woman, that her safety might be compromised or endangered in the workplace is, therefore, abhorrent to our constitutional ethos,” it said.

A bench of Justices C Hari Shankar and Manoj Jain upheld an order passed by the Central Administrative Tribunal (CAT) that had dismissed an IRS officer’s plea challenging the jurisdiction of an Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) issuing him a notice, asking him to appear before it in relation to a sexual harassment complaint made against him by a woman officer.

“There is absolutely nothing in the SHW Act which limits its scope only to cases where a woman employee is sexually harassed by another employee working in her own office, and excepts its application where the delinquent employee is employed elsewhere. The tribunal (CAT) has also held so, and we completely agree.

“We have, nonetheless, perused the provisions invoked by … (the petitioner officer’s counsel) to discern whether any such exception can be read into the SHW Act by implication and we are convinced that the answer has to be in the negative,” the bench said.

It also agreed with the tribunal that there is nothing in section 11(1) of the Act that would restrict its application only to cases where an officer against whom sexual harassment is being alleged is the employee of the department where the complainant is working.

“Each and every one of these objectives (of the SHW Act) is, conspicuously, ‘harasser-neutral’. In an era in which — one has to say it as one sees it every day even in the court — women are equalling, if not outnumbering, men in professional achievements, there can be no compromise on any of these objectives,” the court said.

Relying on previous judgments, the bench said any interpretation of the provisions of the SHW Act that downplays or impedes the complete achievement and implementation of one or more of these objectives has to be firmly eschewed.

The high court was hearing a plea moved by a 2010-batch Indian Revenue Service (IRS) officer accused of sexually harassing an officer in a different department of a Union ministry.

The woman employee got a complaint filed with the ICC of her department after which the officer received a notice from the committee, asking him to appear. However, he approached the CAT, questioning the ICC’s jurisdiction to look into the woman’s complaint.

The tribunal dismissed the officer’s plea after which he approached the high court where senior advocate Arun Bhardwaj, representing the officer, contended that the SHW Act would apply only if a woman has allegedly been sexually harassed by a colleague in her own department.

The petitioner officer claimed that the ICC of a department cannot conduct an inquiry under the Act on a complaint from its woman officer against an employee of another department as he would not be within the disciplinary control of the department where the complainant is working.

The high court, however, said, “If the submissions of Bhardwaj, weighty though they undoubtedly are, were to be accepted, the position that would emerge is that while a lady officer in a department, who is subjected to sexual harassment by an officer of the same department, would have the right to seek recourse to the SHW Act, no such remedy would be available if the harassment is perpetrated by an officer of another department, solely because he works under another employer and is not subject to the disciplinary control of the department where the complainant is working.”

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It added that such an interpretation would strike at the very root of the SHW Act and its ethos and philosophy.

“Having perused the provisions on which Bhardwaj has placed reliance, however, we are of the opinion that the SHW Act does not insulate, from action thereunder, men who sexually harass women in offices other than those in which they are themselves working,” the bench said.

The high court said the hearing before the ICC shall take place on Tuesday and granted liberty to the male officer to put forward a request before the committee to give him more time to present his case.

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