Intern’s plea: SC notice to Justice Swatanter Kumar

NEW DELHI (TIP): The Supreme Court today issued a notice to National Green Tribunal (NGT) Chairman Justice Swatanter Kumar on a PIL petition by a woman lawyer claiming that she was sexually harassed by Justice Kumar in May 2011 while she was an intern and he was a sitting SC judge. A Bench headed by Chief Justice P Sathasivam, however, made it clear that it was not expressing any opinion on the allegations against Justice Kumar and would go only into the prayer for setting up a permanent mechanism in the SC to deal with such complaints against sitting or retired judges.

The Bench, which included Justices Ranjan Gogoi and Shiva Kirti Singh, clarified that the complaint in question would be referred to the proposed committee, subject to SC deciding to constitute it and finding merit in the allegation against the NGT Chairman despite the 30-month delay in filing it. The Bench also sought views of the Centre on the issue and asked senior counsel Fali S Nariman and PP Rao to assist the court as amicus curiae in adjudicating the matter. Attorney General GE Vahanvati would also help the Bench. At the outset, the Bench asked senior counsel Harish Salve, who appeared for the victim, as to why his client had chosen to remain silent for such a long time before coming out in the open despite the fact that as a lawyer she must have been aware of the need to file a complaint immediately on such issues.

If such complaints were entertained, retired judges would run the risk of facing sexual harassment allegations even at the age of 80-85, decades after demitting office, the Bench noted. Salve said the SC did not have a mechanism to receive such complaints in 2011 and even the present committee set up under its own guidelines in the Vishakha case to deal with sexual harassment at workplaces did not have the mandate to entertain complaints against sitting or retired judges. His client approached the SC with her grievance after the court’s prompt action on a similar complaint by another intern against its former judge AK Ganguly in November- December 2012, he said. During the brief arguments, both Salve and the Bench refrained from taking the name of Justice Kumar, preferring him to mention him as “Respondent No. 2”.

Asking Justice Kumar and the Centre to respond to the PIL within four weeks, the Bench posted the matter for next hearing on February 14. Justice Kumar has denied the allegations and moved the Delhi High Court claiming damages against the media organisations for denting his image and reputation by naming him, besides pleading for a ban on reporting the issue merely on the basis of unsubstantiated allegations. After hearing his plea, the HC today reserved its order to be delivered tomorrow. The victim, who did her graduation in law from the West Bengal National University for Juridical Sciences (WBNUJS) from 2007-12, had sent a sworn affidavit narrating the harassment to the CJI on November 30, 2011, but the court’s Secretary General intimated her on December 13 that her complaint would not be entertained in the light of the December 5, 2013, full court resolution against admitting such pleas against retired judges. At the time of her internship she was working at the residence of Justice Kumar, assisting him in organising a conference on environment as the SC was closed for the summer vacation.

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