Service Rules on prevention of sexual harassment at workplace should not be given hyper technical interpretation: Supreme Court

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The Supreme Court on Friday lamented that there is a rising trend of invalidating proceedings inquiring into sexual misconduct by resorting to hyper-technical interpretation of service rules [Union of India vs Mudrika Singh].

A Bench of Justices DY Chandrachud and AS Bopanna said that existence of transformative legislation such as Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition, and Redressal) Act, 2013 (POSH Act) may not come to the aid of persons aggrieved of sexual harassment if the appellate mechanisms turn the process into a punishment.

“It is important that courts uphold the spirit of the right against sexual harassment, which is vested in all persons as a part of their right to life and right to dignity under Article 21 of the Constitution. It is also important to be mindful of the power dynamics that are mired in sexual harassment at the workplace,” the Court said.

It, therefore, urged courts to interpret service rules and laws and governing governing the prevention of sexual harassment at workplace in a manner that renders justice to all.

“We implore courts to interpret service rules and statutory regulations governing the prevention of sexual harassment at the workplace in a manner that metes out procedural and substantive justice to all the parties,” the Court stated.

The observations were made while upholding the charges of sodomy against an officer of the Border Security Force (BSF).

The top court here was dealing with an appeal by the Central government and BSF against a Division Bench order of the Calcutta High Court which has set aside orders of the Director General (DG) of BSF who had upheld charges of sodomy against the respondent officer.

The complainant had alleged that the BSF officer who was a head constable committed sodomy on him. The respondent refuted the charge. The commandant upheld sodomy charges and demoted him from head constable to constable rank.

Upon challenge, the DG BSF upheld the charges of sodomy but commuted the punishment. Instead of demotion, the DG ordered forfeiture of 5 years services for the purpose of promotion and 7 years of service for the purpose of pension.

Upon challenge, the Calcutta High single-judge set aside the orders of the BSF stating there was no jurisdiction with the commandant to direct preparation of additional record of evidence and that there was insufficient evidence.

The Division Bench upheld the order of single-judge leading to the present appeal before the Supreme Court.

While holding that there was no error of jurisdiction on the part of the commandant in seeking clarification with regard to the date of the incident by calling for an additional record of evidence, the Supreme Court noted that statutes such as Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition, and Redressal) Act 2013 are often of no use since the appellate courts turns the “process into punishment.”

The two-judge bench noted that it was evident that the discrepancy regarding the date of occurrence of sodomy was of a minor nature since the event occurred soon after midnight and on the next day.

“Deeming such a trivial aspect to be of monumental relevance, while invalidating the entirety of the disciplinary proceedings against the respondent and reinstating him to his position renders the complainant‘s remedy at nought,” the Supreme Court said.

The High Court, in this case, was not only incorrect in its interpretation of the jurisdiction of the commandant but also demonstrated a callous attitude to the gravamen of the proceedings, the Court said.

Read Judgment here:

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