Sunday, March 24, 2013

A Supreme Court panel to hear women lawyers

NEW DELHI: Women lawyers had been arguing on behalf of litigants in courts for years but on Thursday they got justice they have been seeking for themselves from the Supreme Court: a women-dominated committee to deal with their complaints of sexual harassment by male advocates.

In the 1997 Vishaka judgment, the SC had taken serious note of rampant sexual harassment of women employees at workplace and made it mandatory for every government and private organization to set up of women-dominated committees to deal with sexual harassment complaints.

However, women lawyers could not avail of the judgment because of a technicality. Though the court was their workplace, they were not employees of the court, a distinction which put them outside the purview of the anti-sexual harassment panels set up for the court employees. For the past one year, they — goaded by harassment at the hands of a set of lawyers — had been pushing for a Vishaka judgment-directed committee in the apex court, both on judicial and administrative fronts.

The recent incident of voyeurism in the Delhi high court ladies toilet tipped the scales of their patience and the two lawyers - Binu Tamta and Vibha Datta Makhija - filed a writ petition seeking immediate measures to address sexual harassment complaints and ensure safety of women within court premises.

On Thursday, before a bench of Chief Justice of India Altamas Kabir and Justices A R Dave and Ranjana P Desai they were present in great numbers flanked by seniors — additional solicitor general Indira Jaising, senior advocate Indu Malhotra, Kamini Jaiswal, Meenakshi Arora, V Mohna and Asha Gopalan Nair — to drive home their point home.

They demanded that the anti-harassment committee must consist of more than 50% women to ensure that the "big boys club" did not succeed in brushing under the carpet complaints and women themselves were empowered to deal with their grievances.

As the question - why is the apex court shying from implementing 1997 Vishaka judgment in its own backyard and in other courts to protect women lawyers from sexual harassment - became loud and shrill during the day-long arguments, the bench wanted to deal with the issue head on.

"One thing should be made clear that this is not an adversarial litigation, but an application made to address some of the genuine apprehensions that women practitioners and employees of this court and other courts have with regard to the invasion of their privacy," the bench said.

Asking National Legal Aid Services Authority (NALSA) to collect data about anti-sexual harassment committees in courts across the country, the bench as an interim measure broad-based the apex court's committee where the women lawyers could file their complaints.

The committee, headed by additional Registrar Promila Sharma, would consist of senior advocates Indu Malhotra and Anand Grover, expert outside member S Nair, additional registrar Deepak Jain, advocate Savitri Pandey, deputy registrar Suraj Prakash and assistant registrar Meera Hemant.

After the court passed the order, Makhija said, "This is a great step forward since this is the first time that the complaints committee has been constituted in the Supreme Court to address the complaints of all persons in the Supreme Court premises who face harassment and as such hostile working environment. All this has been possible only due to great solidarity and contribution of all women lawyers in the SC."

Posting the petition filed by Tamta and Makhija for hearing on April 23, the bench said, "before the next date member-secretary of NALSA Asha Menon shall also provide the court with data with regard to existence of committees constituted in line of the judgment in Vishaka case in the different courts, at a national level."

On the voyeurism incident in the Delhi HC, advocate ADN Rao informed the SC that a complaint had been filed with the Delhi Police which was looking into the matter. "We, therefore, leave that part of the case to the Delhi Police for taking appropriate action," the bench added.

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