A decade ago, the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition, and Redressal) Act, 2013 (“POSH Act”) was put into effect with the objective of safeguarding women against workplace harassment. However, recent events have brought to light significant shortcomings in its implementation. In a recent development concerning the POSH Act, the Supreme Court in the case of Aureliano Fernandes v. the State of Goa, [Civil Appeal No. 2482 of 2014, decided on May 12, 2023], has expressed apprehension regarding the current state of its enforcement. Consequently, the Court has issued a series of guidelines aimed at enhancing its implementation and effectiveness.
The Goa University initiated an inquiry against Mr. Aureliano Fernandes ("Appellant") based on multiple complaints from female students alleging sexual harassment. An internal committee was formed, but the Appellant's repeated absence during the enquiry proceedings led to an ex-parte order and his subsequent termination by the University. The Appellant, dissatisfied with the outcome, filed a writ petition challenging the decision in the High Court in Bombay (Goa Bench). However, the High Court upheld the committee's decision, dismissing the Appellant's claims of improper lack of fair opportunity and improper constitution of the committee.
The Appellant appealed to the Supreme Court, which found that the inquiry process was rushed, denying the Appellant adequate participation despite valid medical reasons. The Supreme Court observed that the hasty approach to the proceedings violated the principles of natural justice by denying the Appellant a fair opportunity to be heard. Due to these procedural irregularities, the Supreme Court overturned the judgment of the High Court, setting it aside. The matter was then remanded back to the internal committee for a fresh inquiry to be conducted in accordance with the principles of natural justice. Furthermore, the Supreme Court has directed that considering the significant amount of time that has passed, the respondents are instructed to complete the entire process within three months from the first date of hearing fixed by the internal committee.
The primary issue in this case was the violation of the principles of natural justice in the inquiry conducted by the internal committee at Goa University. The Court voiced its concern regarding the “serious lapses” in the enforcement of the POSH Act, despite the passage of ten years since its enactment. The Supreme Court noted that the failures in enforcing the POSH Act are fundamentally counterproductive and undermine the very purpose of the POSH Act, which is to safeguard women in the workplace.
With the aim of fulfilling the promise held by the POSH Act for working women across the country, the Supreme Court issued the following directions:
While the Supreme Court's directions specifically target government authorities, it is important to note that the POSH Act applies equally to private establishments. Therefore, it is likely that even private establishments will face increased scrutiny in the future. As the Supreme Court merely reaffirmed existing legal provisions, private employers are advised to ensure compliance with the POSH Act.
This case serves as a reminder that the enforcement of laws concerning workplace sexual harassment must prioritize fairness, ensuring that all parties involved are given a fair and reasonable opportunity to present their case. The judgment underscores the significance of diligently implementing and adhering to the provisions of the law to protect the rights and dignity of individuals in the workplace.
Please find attached a copy of the judgement.
This update has been contributed by Ankit Guha (Partner) and Sadia Akhter (Associate).
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