In Usha Padmini and Ors. vs. State of Karnataka and Ors. decided by the Karnataka High Court on 28 January, 2019, the Court held that if an Internal Committee (“IC “) has conducted a proper inquiry into allegations of sexual harassment and has found no truth or substance, the prosecution of the respondent for the very same violation based on the very same set of evidence would be an unjust and an abuse of process of Court. Thus, as an afterthought a police complaint cannot be made if a duly conducted inquiry has given a clean chit to a respondent.
Facts: Sumanta Banerjee (“Accused No. 1”) and Usha Padmini (“Accused No. 2”) have filed a writ petition seeking quashing of proceedings under Indian Penal Code (“IPC”) initiated against them by Respondent No. 2 (name not mentioned). The facts leading to this are that, Respondent No. 2 had sent an email to the human resource manager of their company, alleging sexual and severe work level harassment by Accused No. 1 & 2. The allegations were:
- Sitting position of Accused No. 1 with legs open
- Standing close of Accused No. 1 when Respondent No. 2 is sitting leading to discomfort for her and a possible accident
- Accused No. 2 harassed her together with Accused No. 1
As a result, IC looked into the complaint and by its inquiry report, completely exonerated both Accused No. 1 & 2 of charges levelled against them. Respondent No. 2, being unhappy with the inquiry report approached the appellate authority i.e. labour court for appropriate relief. She also filed a police complaint against both accused persons, pursuant to which a charge sheet was filed against them under sections 354A, 504 read with section 34 of IPC. In this police complaint, Respondent No. 2 alleged that during the lab hours she called Accused No. 1 for some help twice and on both occasions he tried making sexual advances towards her and he tried to touch his manhood on her elbow. As she shouted and asked him to move back, he moved back. She stated that she complained this to HR in writing. She also stated that after this Accused No. 2 started misbehaving even more and she suspected that both Accused Nos. 1 and 2 are physical with each other. This resulted in this writ petition before the Karnataka High Court.
Held: The Karnataka High Court held that these allegations appear to have been made with the sinister motive to foist criminal charges against Accused No. 1. It said that the IC having already inquired into the very same allegations and having found no truth or substance in the said allegations, the prosecution of the petitioners for the very same violation on the very same set of evidence would be an unjust and an abuse of process of Court. In order to secure the ends of justice, the Court quashed the proceedings initiated against Accused No. 1 & 2. The reasons stated by Court for drawing this conclusion are:
- Respondent no. 2 made serious allegations of sexual harassment and work place harassment in the complaint before HR, but during the inquiry by IC, she virtually admitted the fact that no such incident had taken place.
- No statutory appeal or any proceedings are pending against the inquiry report.
- The report submitted by the IC has reached finality.
- It is only after the conclusion of the said inquiry that Respondent No. 2 has come up with the allegations of the offences punishable under the provisions of IPC.
- Inquiry was conducted by the IC in respect of the very same allegations which are now made the basis for criminal prosecution of the petitioners for the alleged offence under Section 354A of IPC. Even the material relied on by the IC as well as the investigating agency is the same.
- Except reiterating the very same allegations made before the IC, she has not produced any additional material to substantiate the charges.
- Her statement about the ‘manhood’ seems to be a mere afterthought and an improvement from her earlier version of the complaint before the IC.
In this case, reliance was also placed on the decision of Supreme Court of India in Radheshyam Kejriwal vs. State of West Bengal & Others, (2011) 3 SCC 581 which stated that if accused was exonerated on merits in the inquiry, criminal prosecution on the same set of facts and charges cannot be allowed to continue as the standard of proof that is contemplated in an enquiry by IC is lesser than the standard of proof contemplated in a criminal trial.
PAW Comment: While it has been established by numerous judgments that IC proceedings and proceedings in a criminal complaint are completely different as the purpose, the standard of proof and the approach are also different, the Court through this Judgment upheld that validly conducted IC proceedings are akin to a final resolution of a sexual harassment complaint if the material relied on by the IC as well as the investigating agency is the same and if the one is exonerated on merits of the case. However, the Court has refrained from speaking on whether a police complaint can be filed post IC proceedings, if fresh evidence is tendered.
– Priyanka Pai, Associate and Shivangi Prasad, Partner