“Explore the Union of India v. Dilip Paul case and the call for comprehensive reforms in the Prevention of Sexual Harassment (PoSH) Act. Delve into the Supreme Court’s observations and decision, emphasizing procedural fairness. Uncover the need for a nuanced approach to penalties, addressing the emotional trauma of victims and enhancing deterrence. Read insights from Purvi Raheja, a 5th-year B.B.A., LL.B. (Hons.) student at VIPS, GGSIPU, New Delhi.”

Union of India v. Dilip Paul: A Need for Comprehensive Reforms of PoSH at Workplace?

Introduction

Globalization has ignited a transformative change in the global status of women. The era where men held exclusive roles as the only bread earners of the family has faded into the past. However, as more women join the mainstream workforce in India, the issue of sexual harassment at the workplace has become more pronounced. Workplace sexual harassment, a form of gender discrimination, violates women’s fundamental rights to equality and life, as guaranteed under Articles 14, 15, and 21 of the Constitution of India. Workplace sexual harassment not only inflicts emotional trauma on women but also cultivates a hostile work environment, casting a demoralizing shadow on women’s motivation to excel.

To address this issue, the Prevention of Sexual Harassment (PoSH) Act was enacted. The primary aim is to prevent and protect women from workplace sexual harassment and ensure the effective resolution of complaints. The Act mandates employers to establish an Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) in workplaces with 10 or more employees. This committee is responsible for handling complaints, conducting inquiries, and ensuring appropriate action is taken.

Aggrieved Woman under PoSH Actin relation to a workplace, is a woman of any age, whether employed or not, who alleges to have been subjected to any act of sexual harassment. It is also pertinent to note that the POSH Act is gender-specific, offering protection exclusively to women. As a result, the safeguards outlined in the Act do not extend to male victims, unless employers decide to include such provisions in their policies.

Sexual Harassment Section 2(n):

As per the PoSH Act, ‘sexual harassment’ includes any one or more of the following unwelcome acts or behavior (whether directly or by implication) namely physical contact and advances; a demand or request for sexual favors; making sexually coloured remark; showing pornography; or any other unwelcome physical; verbal or non-verbal conduct of sexual nature.

UNION OF INDIA V. DILIP PAUL

In the case of Union of India & Ors v Dilip Paul, rendered on November 6, 2023, the 3 Judge bench at Supreme Court led by CJI DY Chandrachud, accompanied by Justice JB Pardiwala, and Justice Manoj Misra underscored the importance of courts not being swayed by minor discrepancies or excessively technical procedural matters. The emphasis was on assessing the effect of any procedural irregularity within the broader context of the inquiry’s overall fairness.

BRIEF FACTS OF THE CASE:

The Union of India and others, unsuccessful respondents in a Gauhati High Court case from May 15, 2019, filed an appeal before the Supreme Court. The High Court had favored the petitioner (original respondent) by allowing the writ petition and overturning a penalty that withheld 50% of the respondent’s pension indefinitely. This penalty stemmed from disciplinary proceedings initiated over allegations of sexual harassment.

The respondent, an Area Organizer at the Service Selection Board in Rangia, Assam, faced accusations from a field assistant. She claimed he teased her, made her sit in office for long hours, made inappropriate phone calls at night, visited her residence uninvited late at night in the presence of her 2 children, and subjected her to sexually colored remarks. She lodged a complaint and an on-the-spot inquiry took place.  The Complainant (field manager) also submitted a second complaint containing additional allegations against the Respondent.

Union of India v. Dilip Paul

Despite initial inquiries failing to prove the allegations, the Central Complaints Committee (CCC), formed by the Ministry of Home Affairs, found the respondent guilty. The respondent approached this in the Central Administrative Tribunal (CAT), requesting termination of the inquiry conducted by CCC but CAT refrained from forming an opinion due to ongoing CCC disciplinary proceedings. The High Court ruled that the CCC exceeded its authority in handling the second complaint and criticized its speculative findings. The case was then appealed before the Supreme Court.

SUPREME COURT’S OBSERVATION:

  • In reviewing disciplinary matters, especially those involving sexual harassment, courts should prioritize the overall case rather than minor details and rely on complainants’ evidence if it inspires confidence drawing guidance from cases like Apparel Export Promotion Council v. A.K. Chopra and Union of India and Others v. Mudrika Singh. Furthermore, adjudicating authorities have the discretion to consider any evidence with probative value, ensuring a fair opportunity for the accused.
  • The High Court accurately noted that the Central Complaints Committee’s (CCC) investigation is not confined solely to the initial complaint’s content, as authorized by the 2006 Standing Order. Moreover, the 2006 Standing Order permits the submission of subsequent or additional complaints, subject to some conditions.
  • The Supreme Court delved into the “No Evidence” principle, asserting that domestic inquiry findings are typically immune from judicial review unless they are collateral or jurisdictional. The High Court erred by assuming an appellate role scrutinizing the decision’s merits based on these findings. Exceptions to this norm include cases lacking “no evidence” supporting the findings and decisions being unreasonable. The Court highlighted that, even in departmental inquiries without strict legal rules of evidence, there must be limits on admitting evidence devoid of probative value.
  • The doctrine of the “Prejudice Test” stands as a known and established principle crucial for evaluating claims of procedural improprieties or breaches of audi alteram partem. The case of State Bank of Patiala and Others v. S.K. Sharma clarified that in determining whether a breach of procedural rules or natural justice has caused prejudice, it is essential to establish that the violation had a meaningful impact on either the final decision or the imposed penalty.
  • The Supreme Court drew from R. Mahalingam v. Chairman, Tamil Nadu Public Service Commission (2013), stressing that judicial intervention should only occur if the decision is disproportionate to the misconduct or if it shocks the conscience. The principle highlighted here is that the standard of proof in a disciplinary inquiry relies on the preponderance of probabilities rather than beyond a reasonable doubt.

DECISION OF SUPREME COURT:

The appeal was acknowledged and allowed by the Supreme Court, leading to the overturning of the High Court’s order. The penalty imposed by the Disciplinary Authority on the Respondent of the permanent withholding of 50% of the pension, was reinstated. Nonetheless, the Appellant was directed not to recover any funds previously disbursed to the Respondent.

CONCLUSION:

In my view, while the Supreme Court’s commitment to ensuring procedural fairness in cases of sexual harassment is commendable, yet an opportunity was missed by the Supreme Court to delve into the proportionality of the imposed penalty. While rectifying procedural missteps, the Court could have taken a broader view, assessing whether the punishment meted out was equitable and just for both the victim and the respondent. The inherent limitations of financial consequences within the organizational structure raise questions about their impact on the well-being of the victim and their ability to act as a genuine deterrent to potential offenders. The current scenario, in my opinion, exemplified by a blanket imposition of a lifetime withholding of 50% of a government employee’s pension, appears to be excessively severe and warrants a critical re-examination.

Furthermore, this calls for a re-evaluation of the existing legal framework gains resonance when considering the inadequacy of financial penalties in reflecting the profound emotional and psychological trauma experienced by victims of sexual harassment. A crucial consideration is the need for a more comprehensive set of penalties, potentially including imprisonment, aligned with the gravity of the offense and akin to the punitive measures under the Indian Penal Code (IPC). Such an approach  could potentially foster a deeper societal understanding of the severe consequences of sexual harassment and serve as a more effective deterrent.

***

Purvi Raheja is a 5th year B.B.A, LL.B. (Hons.) Student at VIPS, GGSIPU, New Delhi

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