The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Court sets example with sex abuse sack

Chennai, Oct. 11: In what could perhaps be the first case of a judicial officer being sacked for sexual harassment in the workplace, an assistant registrar of Madras High Court has been “compulsorily retired”.

In an administrative order yesterday, chief justice B. Subashan Reddy said the disciplinary action was taken against Muthukumaraswamy for his “improper behaviour and sexual harassment” of a woman employee of the court.

The incident was reported over two years ago when a court stenographer, whose identity was not revealed by the high court, filed a writ petition with the then chief justice against the officer, stating that “things had gone far too beyond her”.

With the case proceeding at a snail’s pace, advocate R. Vaigai filed a writ petition demanding the constitution of a “complaints committee” in the high court to hear the case, in keeping with the Supreme Court judgment in the landmark Vishaka case on sexual harassment in workplaces.

Vaigai, later appointed by the chief justice to represent the victim, said that initially the high court had come out with a set of proposals to deal with the complaint, but “it was not acceptable to us”.

After Reddy assumed office as chief justice in September 2001, he “assured us of a free and fair process” in taking disciplinary action, she added.

The accused was given the benefit of a lawyer and a district judge appointed as the inquiry officer, Vaigai said.

The “inquiry was fair” notwithstanding that “we had to initiate it through judicial action in the first place”, she added.

Though there are broad guidelines for such an inquiry, they do not outline any particular course of action, Vaigai said.

In that sense, this case has assumed a historic dimension, the lawyer added. The high court allowed the victim and the accused a free hearing. The victim and the witnesses were also provided protection.

After the Vishaka judgment this is the first trial that has evolved a “procedure to take care of victims’ rights”, with specific orders being passed at different stages to protect the victim, Vaigai said.

“The Jurisprudence of Victimology” has evolved with this case, she added. For instance, the inquiry was held in an informal atmosphere and not in the court premises.

Given the trauma a victim would go through in recalling the humiliating moments before the panel, “administrative empathy” was shown towards her and she was allowed to relax at intervals.

Lauding the measures as a “definite step forward” in implementing the Supreme Court guidelines in the Visakha case, Vaigai pointed out that the presiding officer filed his report to the chief justice only after hearing extensive arguments.

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