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SC directs Centre, states to ensure constitution of sexual harassment committees

New Delhi: The Supreme Court on Friday directed the Centre and the state governments to undertake a time-bound exercise to verify whether sexual harassment committees have been constituted in all ministries and departments.

The top court said there are serious lapses in the enforcement of the 2013 Prevention of Sexual Harassment (PoSH) Act.

A bench of Justices A S Bopanna and Hima Kohli said an improperly constituted sexual harassment panel would be an impediment in conducting an inquiry at the workplace, as envisaged under the statute and the rules.

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The apex court said it will be equally counterproductive to have an ill prepared committee conduct a half-baked inquiry that can lead to serious consequences like imposition of major penalties on a delinquent employee.

“The Union of India, all State Governments and Union Territories are directed to undertake a time bound exercise to verify as to whether all the concerned Ministries, Departments, Government organizations, authorities, Public Sector Undertakings, institutions, bodies, etc. have constituted ICCs/LCs/ICs, as the case may be and that the composition of the said Committees are strictly in terms of the provisions of the PoSH Act,” the bench said.

“It shall be ensured that necessary information regarding the constitution and composition of the committees, details of the e-mail IDs and contact numbers of the designated persons, the procedure prescribed for submitting an online complaint, as also the relevant rules, regulations and internal policies are made readily available on the website of the concerned authority/ Functionary/ Organisation/Institution/Body, as the case may be,” the bench said, adding the information furnished shall also be updated from time to time.

The top court’s direction came while hearing a plea filed by Aureliano Fernandes, a former head of department at Goa University, challenging an order of the Bombay High Court regarding allegations of sexual harassment against him.

The high court had dismissed his plea against an order of the Executive Council of Goa University (Disciplinary Authority) which dismissed him from services and disqualified him from future employment.

The top court set aside the high court order noting procedural lapses in inquiry proceedings and violation of principles of natural justice.

Issuing a slew of directions, the top court said similar exercise shall be undertaken by all the statutory bodies of professionals at the apex level and the state level (including those regulating doctors, lawyers, architects, chartered accountants, cost accountants, engineers, bankers and other professionals), by universities, colleges, training centres and educational institutions and by government and private hospitals/nursing homes.

“Immediate and effective steps shall be taken by the authorities/ managements/employers to familiarize members of the ICCs/ LCs (Local Committees)/ ICs (Internal Committees) with their duties and the manner in which an inquiry ought to be conducted on receiving a complaint of sexual harassment at the workplace, from the point when the complaint is received, till the inquiry is finally concluded and the Report submitted.

“The authorities/management/employers shall regularly conduct orientation programmes, workshops, seminars and awareness programmes to upskill members of the ICCs/LCs/ICs and to educate women employees and women’s groups about the provisions of the Act, the Rules and relevant regulations,” the bench said.

It directed the National Legal Services Authority(NALSA) and the State Legal Services Authorities (SLSAs) to develop modules to conduct workshops and organise awareness programmes to sensitise stakeholders and adolescent groups.

“The National Judicial Academy and the State Judicial Academies shall include in their annual calendars, orientation programmes, seminars and workshops for capacity building of members of the ICCs/LCs/ICs established in the High Courts and District Courts and for drafting Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) to conduct an inquiry under the Act and Rules.

“A copy of this judgment shall be transmitted to the Secretaries of all the Ministries, Government of India who shall ensure implementation of the directions by all the concerned Departments, Statutory Authorities, Institutions, Organisations etc. under the control of the respective Ministries,” it said.

The bench also directed that a copy of the judgment be transmitted to the Chief Secretaries of all the States and Union Territories who shall ensure strict compliance of these directions by all the concerned Departments.

“It shall be the responsibility of the Secretaries of the Ministries, Government of India and the Chief Secretaries of every State/Union Territory to ensure implementation of the directions issued.

“The Registry of the Supreme Court of India shall transmit a copy of this judgment to the Director, National Judicial Academy, Member Secretary, NALSA, Chairperson, Bar Council of India and the Registrar Generals of all the High Courts. The Registry shall also transmit a copy of this judgment to the Medical Council of India, Council of Architecture, Institute of Chartered Accountants, Institute of Company Secretaries and the Engineering Council of India for implementing the directions issued,” it said.

The top court directed the Centre and all states and Union Territories to file their affidavits within eight weeks for reporting compliances.

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