In X vs. District Magistrate (South) and Another, decided by the Delhi High Court on 31 January, 2019, the Court decided on a complaint that was filed with a Local Committee (“LC”) beyond a period of 3 months from the date of last incident of sexual harassment (i.e. beyond the prescribed period of limitation under Section 9 of Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act and Rules, 2013 (“Law”)) and held that even though the complaint was beyond limitation period, LC should inquire into the complaint and pass a reasoned and speaking order.
The facts of this case are that X (“Appellant”) instituted a complaint with the LC on 8 March, 2018. However, the LC made a report dismissing her complaint for it being filed beyond a period of 3 months (as required by Section 9 of the Law). Thereafter, it appears that she approached the High Court and filed a writ petition. The single judge also dismissed the petition upholding the report of LC. Feeling aggrieved by this, she then approached the High Court (Division Bench) in appeal against the order passed by the single judge and the report of the LC.
Section 9 of the law states that “…Any aggrieved woman may make, in writing, a complaint of sexual harassment at workplace to the Internal Committee if so constituted, or the Local Committee, in case it is not so constituted, within a period of three months from the date of incident and in case of a series of incidents, within a period of three months from the date of last incident…”
The Appellant argued before the division bench that she had raised an initial complaint alleging sexual harassment within limitation period on 8 January, 2018 with her employer and had received an email confirming that her complaint had been received and was under consideration. She also stated that she had not submitted some documents to the LC in the past and gave these documents to the Court in sealed cover.
The District Magistrate and Another (“Respondents”) argued that since the complaint before the LC was instituted only in March 2018 pertaining to incidents which occurred on 12th July 2017 and 6th September 2017, they were much beyond the 3 month time limit prescribed under Law. With respect to additional documents, they argued that even if these new documents were allowed to be admitted, the complaint would still not be within the permits of Section 9. Further, they argued that if the complaint is now relegated to the LC, there would be no purpose served as there exists no employer – employee relationship between the Appellant and her erstwhile employer.
The Division Bench of the High Court set aside the order passed by the Single Judge and the report of the LC dismissing the complaint. It held that the complaint was dismissed by LC solely because the complaint was filed beyond a period of 3 months and asked LC to inquire into the complaint afresh. Further, the Court took cognizance of certain documents (communications) submitted by the Appellant via sealed envelope which were earlier not presented to the LC and gave an opportunity to the Appellant to submit the same to the LC. It directed the LC to pass a reasoned and speaking order after considering the newly submitted communications.
Please note: While the judgment states that she had filed a complaint within the organization against the CEO, it does not mention the reason why she approached the LC. The High Court, without getting into any discussion around it, has held that the LC should reconsider the complaint. The Court has also refrained from passing a speaking order on the merit of issue of limitation. Therefore, the reasoning of the Court in deciding the matter in this manner is unclear.
Over and above this, the timelines, reasons for delay (if any) in filing the complaint with the organization and extension of time limit (if any) is also unclear as the last incident appears to have happened on 6 September, 2017 and the complaint was filed within the organization on 8 January 2018. This is in light of the proviso to Section 9 which states that “…Provided further that the Internal Committee or, as the case may be, the Local Committee may, for the reasons to be recorded in writing, extend the time limit not exceeding three months, if it is satisfied that the circumstances were such which prevented the woman from filing a complaint within the said period…”
The Court has also not commented on the absence of employer – employee relationship between the Appellant and her erstwhile employer and whether this would play a role in inquiring into a complaint by LC.