New Delhi, July 31: Some 20-odd women Supreme Court lawyers today asked the top court to set up a committee to probe complaints of sexual harassment from women lawyers, on the lines of the court’s 1997 Vishaka judgment.
Senior counsel Indu Malhotra made the demand, which was backed by women lawyers who had packed the small courtroom that was hearing a case relating to alleged sexual harassment of a woman Delhi High Court lawyer.
In the Vishaka judgment, the top court had directed every establishment with more than 10 employees to set up a sexual harassment complaints committee headed by a woman and with women making up at least half its members.
Ironically, the courts themselves have lagged behind in following the prescription. Neither the high courts nor the subordinate courts have such committees. Recently, a writ was filed in Goa High Court seeking a complaints panel.
The top court has a sexual harassment complaints committee for the women employed in its registry, that is, the court’s administrative wing. But that panel does not cover the women lawyers practising in the court.
Today, the women lawyers cited past instances of harassment. They said a woman junior of one of the country’s topmost lawyers was stalked and harassed by a male colleague for years till the senior used his clout to get him to back off.
In the case heard today, lawyer Amit Chanchal Jha, 34, is accused of physically abusing a female colleague and behaving indecently during a hearing before a registrar on January 13 this year.
The high court, acting suo motu, had the same day sent Jha to jail for a week and debarred him from practising in any Delhi court for three months. It also directed the Bar Council of India, the apex disciplinary authority for lawyers, to act against Jha.
Saying Jha’s actions had interfered with judicial procedure, obstructed justice and lowered the majesty of the court, the high court had convicted him of contempt of court.
Jha then appealed to the top court, where his lawyer Uday Lalit claimed his conduct did not strictly fall under the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971. Lalit argued that the incident took place when the two lawyers were working together and the registrar was not present.
He said the incident happened on the spur of the moment and his client regretted his behaviour. He claimed that any disciplinary action against him could come only from the Bar Council and not the court.
The Bar Council receives many complaints but is not known to act on them unless directed by a court. It was the high court that had acted against lawyer R.K. Anand when a sting purportedly showed him trying to manipulate a case.
Jha had moved his appeal before the expiry of his three-month debarment. Now, the only positive outcome for him could be a squashing of the high court’s direction to the Bar Council. The next hearing has been set after six weeks.