An in-house committee of the Supreme Court on Monday dismissed a complaint of sexual harassment made by a former court staffer against Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi.
The committee, made up of Justices SA Bobde, Indira Banerjee and Indu Malhotra, has found “no substance in the allegations” made by the 35-year-old woman in a complaint sent to 22 judges on April 19.
A press release from the secretary general of the Supreme Court issued on Monday said the report is not liable to be made public as per the 2003 judgement of the court in Indira Jaising vs Supreme Court of India.
Given the precedent that has been cited, can the finding of the committee be challenged judicially before the Supreme Court? A reading of the judgement reveals that this may not be possible.
However, an attempt to challenge the committee findings seems imminent given the question of due process raised in the last two weeks. The complainant withdrew from the proceedings on April 30 after her demands were not met. She had requested that she be represented by a lawyer, the proceedings be video recorded and she be supplied with official statements of the testimonies.
The committee did not accede to these demands and went ahead with the proceedings ex parte.
Indira Jaising vs Supreme Court of India also involved a sexual harassment complaint against a sitting judge of the Karnataka High Court in 2003.
The Supreme Court had then formed a three-judge committee consisting of two High Court chief justices and another High Court judge.
Senior advocate Indira Jaising had moved the court asking for the committee report to be made public. In his judgement, Justice Rajendra Babu dismissed her prayer and said:
“A report made on such inquiry if given publicity will only lead to more harm than good to the institution as Judges would prefer to face inquiry leading to impeachment. In such a case the only course open to the parties concerned if they have material is to invoke the provisions of Article 124 or Article 217 of the Constitution, as the case may be. It is not appropriate for the petitioner to approach this Court for the relief or direction for release of the Report, for what the Chief Justice of India has done is only to get information from peer Judges of those who are accused and the report made to the Chief Justice of India is wholly confidential.”
The judgement explains that the in-house procedure was adopted as there was no remedy against a sitting judge other than impeachment proceedings. No other disciplinary proceedings or procedures have been envisaged in the Constitution against sitting High Court and Supreme Court judges.
On the nature of the report, the judgement said it was only for the satisfaction of the Chief Justice of India as the top administrator of India’s judiciary. The court said:
“The said report is only for the purpose of satisfaction of the Chief Justice of India that such a report has been made. It is purely preliminary in nature, ad hoc and not final. If the Chief Justice of India is satisfied that no further action is called for in the matter, the proceeding is closed. If any further action is to be taken as indicated in the In- House procedure itself, the Chief Justice of India may take such further steps as he deems fit. Therefore, in the hierarchy of the courts, the Supreme Court does not have any disciplinary control over the High Court Judges, much less the Chief Justice of India has any disciplinary control over any of the Judges.”
In the case of the current in-house proceedings conducted on the complaint against Justice Gogoi, the report will be sent to the next senior judge competent to receive the report.
Since Justice Bobde, the second most senior judge, was part of the committee and the third most senior judge, NV Ramana, had recused from the proceedings following reservations raised by the complainant, the report is likely to go to Justice Arun Mishra, the Supreme Court’s fourth most senior judge,
On the question of transparency raised by Jaising during the arguments, the court said:
“The inquiry ordered and the report made to the Chief Justice of India being confidential and discreet is only for the purpose of his information and not for the purpose of disclosure to any other person. The principles stated in the above decisions[cited by the petitioner] are in different context and those principles cannot be invoked in a case of this nature, which is of exceptional category.”
This means, challenging the proceedings of the committee judicially before the Supreme Court will be a difficult task. It remains to be seen whether a copy of the report will be supplied to the complainant. This seems unlikely at the moment.
The possible remedy now could only be to invoke impeachment proceedings against Gogoi under Article 124 of the Constitution. However, this requires a motion of impeachment in Parliament sponsored by at least 100 Lok Sabha members or 50 Rajya Sabha members.
Speaking to Scroll.in, Indira Jaising said that the possibility of a judicial challenge will be deliberated upon. In a tweet earlier, Jaising termed the committee’s findings a “scandal” and pointed out that the 2003 judgement was delivered much before the Right to Information Act of 2005.