CJI sexual harassment allegations: While safeguarding judicial independence, Supreme Court must also defend principles of natural justice
If the Supreme Court had referred the sexual harassment case against the CJI to the internal complaints committee to begin with, it would have escaped the criticisms it is now dodging.
A former Supreme Court staffer has accused Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi of sexual harassment.
The CJI dismissed the allegations as an attempt to malign the judiciary, while the Bar Council of India called them 'cooked up' claims.
The way the top court went about dealing with the case has drawn criticism from several quarters.
The Supreme Court on Tuesday issued a notice to lawyer Utsav Bains in the suo motu case it initiated after a former apex court staffer made allegations of sexual harassment against Chief Justice of India (CJI) Ranjan Gogoi.
The bench of Justice Arun Mishra, Justice Rohinton F Nariman and Justice Deepak Gupta issued a notice to Bains, who claimed that the allegations against the CJI were a "conspiracy" to force him to resign from his post by framing him in a false case of sexual harassment.
In an affidavit filed in the Supreme Court on Monday, Bains claimed: "On 19th April, a very reliable person, strictly on the condition of anonymity and in good faith, informed the deponent about a corporate figure who had tried to approach an hon'ble Supreme Court judge to get a favourable order in a high-profile case listed before this hon'ble court but was unsuccessful, and then the said corporate figure attempted to get the case transferred from the court of that hon'ble Supreme Court judge but did not succeed, and thus ganged up with an alleged fixer by the name of Romesh Sharma and his aides to frame the hon'ble Chief Justice of India in a false case of sexual harassment to pressure him to resign."
He added, "That it is pertinent to mention here that the deponent is privy to certain events involving the said corporate figure and will submit in a sealed cover the events and list of the involved persons to this hon'ble court should it so direct him."
While issuing the notice to Bains, the court asked him to be present in court on Wednesday and prove the claims he had made. What unfolds on Wednesday will be closely watched as it will have far-reaching implications for the independence and integrity of the judiciary — more so as what transpired immediately after the reports of sexual harassment against the CJI came to light has been seen as a blatant disregard for the principle of natural justice.
"No one should be a judge in his own case" and "innocent until proven guilty" are the two legal maxims that form the core and essence of the principle of natural justice. The events that unfolded after the former Supreme Court staffer accused Gogoi of sexual harassment tossed these principles to wind.
However, the court has taken some course correction measures in the wake of the uproar and criticism that followed from several quarters over the manner in which the apex court had dealt with the case.
Soon after reports of allegations of sexual harassment against Gogoi started doing rounds on 19 April, the Supreme Court registry issued a notice on the constitution of a special bench — comprising the CJI himself and justices Arun Mishra and Sanjiv Khanna — to deal with a "matter of great public importance touching upon the independence of the judiciary".
On 20 April, the bench assembled at 10.30 am, and Chief Justice Gogoi refuted all allegations leveled against him, also clarifying that other senior judges will examine the charges against him. Although Gogoi was part of the bench, he did not have a hand in the judicial order passed after the hearing.
The Bar Council of India condemned the allegations made against the CJI and termed the entire episode "false and cooked-up" and an "attempt to malign the institution".
Following the suit, the Supreme Court Employees Welfare Association, in a statement issued on 22 April, said the allegations against the chief justice were "false, fabricated and baseless".
"Such unscrupulous allegations are aimed at maligning the institution. The association re-affirms its pledge to work vigorously to strengthen this august institution. In this hour of time, the entire staff is united and stand firmly with the Chief Justice of India to defeat the malicious attempt of external forces to target the Indian judiciary," the statement read.
This ex parte "judgment" by the Bar Council of India and Supreme Court Employees Welfare Association held the complainant "guilty" of conspiring against the CJI. While there is no question of any conclusion being reached on the allegations against CJI without a proper investigation, the manner in which the allegations were dismissed as "false" prompted two young Supreme Court lawyers, Ashish Goel and Gautam Bhatia, to write an open letter to the chairman of the Bar Council of India, and criticising the stand of the body vehemently.
"...You, as the chairman of the Bar Council of India, do not represent the views of the bar in the instant matter," the letter said, also questioning the "manner in which the Supreme Court dealt with the allegations" against Gogoi and adding that it "deeply undermines the foundations of our Constitution and flies in the face of the rule of law".
The two lawyers also made an important point that the court should have considered as its first option in dealing with this case. "The CJI should have promptly referred the complaint to the Supreme Court's Internal Complaints Committee, headed by Justice Indu Malhotra. In not doing so, the CJI has exhibited disdain for an independent inquiry upon the allegations of sexual harassment made against him," Bhati and Goel highlighted.
If the apex court had followed this route to begin with, it would have escaped the criticisms it is now dodging from several quarters.
Questioning the manner in which the Bar Council dismissed the allegations, the letter rightly pointed out, "Judicial independence does not imply freedom from accountability. The allegations of sexual harassment, made in a sworn affidavit with specific details, cannot be conveniently dismissed as being "wild", "scandalous", or "politically motivated".
Following this, the Supreme Court Advocates On Record Association on Monday passed a resolution also criticising the way the case was handled. The resolution said, "The Supreme Court Advocates On Record Association expresses deep reservation against the procedural impropriety shown by Hon'ble Justice Ranjan Gogoi in the suo moto proceedings held on 20 April in the issue relating to allegations of sexual harassment against Hon'ble Justice Ranjan Gogoi by an ex-Supreme Court employee. The allegation of the ex-employee of the Supreme Court has to be dealt with as per the established procedure of law, and law must be applied in each and every case uniformly."
After this, it was the Executive Committee of the Supreme Court Bar Association that passed a resolution coming down heavily on the way the case was dealt with. It termed the suo moto proceedings by the Supreme Court in the case a "violation of procedure established by law as well as principles of natural justice". The resolution also asked the "full court" to take all necessary steps as may be required in law in this respect.
Now, while Bains has been issued a notice to be present in court and prove his claims, what will also be closely watched is how the complainant in the case — who has also sent the affidavit to number of judges of the Supreme Court — is given a chance to prove her side of the story. It will also be important to see what role the Supreme Court's Internal Complaints Committee will play in this regard.
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