Anonymous Witnesses in POSH Act Inquiries

Rouse Avenue Court: Exploring the Limitations of Anonymous Witnesses in POSH Act Inquiries

Case Number – X v. Internal Committee & Ors. (RCA DJ NO. 02/22)  

Date of Judgement: 06.07.2023 

Reference Chart 

Position of Parties Reference 
Appeal Inquiry 
Appellant Complainant 
Respondent No. 1 Internal Committee 
Respondent No. 2 Anonymous witness 
Respondent No. 3 Respondent 
Respondent No. 4 Employer 

Brief Facts 

X filed an appeal challenging the IC report was filed on the following grounds: 

  1. A submitted their report finding C to be guilty but no punishment was awarded to C. 
  1. Witness (C)’s identity was not disclosed despite X’s objections that non-disclosure amounted to violation of principles of natural justice. 
  1. X was asked to share the questions of cross examination to be posed to B, in advance to C. 
  1. C was allowed to resign despite non-conclusion of inquiry and implementation of recommendations. 
  1. Collusion between A and D to protect B and C. 
  1. A asked B questions that were not relevant to the incident of sexual harassment and the questions were designed to malign X’s character. 
  1. X was informed that warning letter had been issued to C but copy of such warning letter was not provided to X. 

Issues 

  1. Whether the Internal Committee’s findings and conclusion suffer from infirmity and illegality with bias against X? 

Analysis by the Tribunal 

The Court made the following observations: 

  1. Findings and conclusion of the Internal Committee has not been challenged and therefore, it has attained finality. Insufficiency of punishment has been raised in the appeal. Therefore, the court cannot go into findings itself. 
  1. Interference of the courts should be limited to ensuring that there are no procedural irregularities or violations of principles of natural justice and once the ICC has adequately and appropriately addressed a complaint of sexual harassment, it is not open to the courts to look into the merits of the matter. 
  1. Internal Committee is a fact-finding body and can lay down procedures as per the facts and circumstances of each case, but the Internal Committee must adhere to principles of natural justice.  
  1. Internal Committee is not bound by technical procedure. 
  1. Principles of Natural Justice must not only be followed in letter, but also in spirit. 
  1. Neutrality has to be maintained by the Internal Committee
  1. Further application of natural justice depends on a case-to-case basis, and protection of witnesses is a valid consideration for excluding cross-examination of witnesses particularly when they refuse to depose due to fear of person answering the charge. 
  1. However, questions on record showed that A did not ask B questions that were relevant to the incident of sexual harassment. A had asked questions that maligned the X’s character. 
  1. A did not attempt to go into the root of the matter. 
  1. Asking X to share her questions for cross of B well in advance to C showed bias on the part of A and violates principles of natural justice. 
  1. D argued that the statement of the anonymous witness was not considered to arrive at a conclusion. However, if it were considered and such consideration had resulted in a different conclusion (such as D not being guilty). Therefore, such an act could not be condoned. 
  1. Witness cannot depose without being scrutiny of their cross-examination by affected party. 
  1. Anonymous witness cannot be permitted to be produced in inquiry under POSH Act. A’s practice was prejudicial and biased. 

Observations by the Tribunal 

In addition to reasons for its conclusion, the Tribunal made further observations: 

  1. It is important to note that sexual harassment is a sign of unhealthy human interaction. It also violates the right to life and the right to a peaceful existence that is guaranteed by the law, in addition to the rights to dignity, social security, and equality that are guaranteed to all people in every social system.  
  1. It is crucial to keep in mind that the ICC is an investigative organisation that makes recommendations regarding claims of sexual harassment at the workplace. The statute’s stated goal is to give victims a quick, straightforward redressal free from the burdens and formal requirements of courts and tribunals. The ICC is free to design its procedure in accordance with the unique circumstances of the case before it while guaranteeing natural justice, according to the Act of 2013, which specifies that the ICC is not bound by technical procedures and is only required to deliver natural justice to parties. It has to be kept in mind that the interference of the courts should be limited to ensuring that there are no procedural irregularities or violations of principles of natural justice and once the ICC has adequately and appropriately addressed a complaint of sexual harassment, it is not open to the courts to look into the merits of the matter. 
  1. The court emphasized the duties of the employer as mentioned under Section 19.  
  1. It is crucial for Delhi Commission for Women to focus on substantive actions rather than superficial gestures just for the sake of publicity and bringing the name in newspaper, or to find fault in the other institution when equal responsibility lies with them also. The commission should do concrete work rather than lip service. 

Conclusion 

  1. Given the foregoing discussion, this Tribunal concluded that the ICC’s findings are flawed because, despite finding respondent Y guilty and the appellant’s accusation to be credible, Y received no penalty. 
  1. C was asked to tender an unconditional apology and pay litigation cost of Rs. 2 lakhs to X. Owing to financial crunch, C was allowed to pay Rs. 1.5 lakhs instead. 
  1. D was directed to pay litigation cost of Rs. 50,000/- to X. 
  1. D was directed to display and establish zero tolerance for sexual harassment in its institution. 
  1. An internet generated report showed that D’s female employees have raised complaints against several of D’s male employees and the same has gone unanswered. Without going into whether the contents of the report were correct or not, the Court directed D to find out if it is true or not, and accordingly take steps to curb the menace. The Court stated that incidents should not go un-redressed as it shows D’s callous attitude. 

Written by: Divya R, Trainer & External Member, Chief Quality Officer (Social Media), The Legal Swan 

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