#MeToo movement is a cleansing process, it is not vindictive, Senior Advocate Indira Jaising

#MeToo movement is a cleansing process, it is not vindictive, Senior Advocate Indira Jaising

The #MeToo movement on social media is a cleansing process, and not a vindictive one, said Senior Advocate Indira Jaising, speaking at the lecture series organized by the Delhi High Court yesterday.

The discussion on ‘Sexual Harassment at the Workplace: Legal issues emerging from the #MeToo Movement’ featured a number of eminent speakers including Chairperson of the Delhi High Court Prevention of Sexual Harassment Committee Justice Hima Kohli, and Senior Advocate Geeta Luthra. The welcome address was delivered by Delhi High Court Bar Association President Kirti Uppal. The event was attended by judges of the High Court and a host of lawyers.

The Chief Guest for the event was Chief Justice Rajendra Menon.

Women are only seeking closure, an acknowledgement of what happened to them. They are not looking for money or prosecution. They want closure. Till such an acknowledgement is not given, they are troubled human beings.”, Jaising went on to state in her speech.

She also addressed the issue of “due process” that arises with the growing trend of making sexual harassment accusations against men on social media.

The issue of due process does not arise when there is no accused. When women speak up (on social media), they are speaking their hearts out (not filing a criminal complaint). Where is the issue of due process?”

She claimed that women are exercising their Right to Freedom of Speech and Expression guaranteed under the Constitution of India. If someone feels defamed, he may file a defamation suit, she stated.

She further added that since most of the offenders are repeat offenders, they will have to show that the offender has a reputation which can be defamed.

Jaising also recalled an incident when she was sexually harassed by a senior in the Supreme Court corridors, and said,

 “I dealt with it in my own way. I caught hold of the man (a designated senior), confronted him and gave him one tight slap. I am empowered, many women may not be able to do so.

Speaking on the incidents of sexual harassment at workplace, Jaising asserted that the hierarchical relationship between the employee and the employer is “the heart of the issue”, and it has a “chilling effect” on the former.

Relying on a United States judgement, Jaising stated that sexual harassment was a form of discrimination against women. Right to work free from sexual harassment is a constitutional right, she further said.

She also informed the audience that a victim of sexual harassment at the workplace is not bound to go to the Internal Complaints Committee; she can avail any of the civil or criminal remedies provided for under the law.

Jaising also took the opportunity to urge the Delhi High Court to consider foregoing the court fee in case of sexual harassment complaints by women.

Senior Advocate Geeta Luthra, on the other hand, addressed the gathering on the legal issues surrounding the #MeToo movement.

“There are three issues arising out of #Metoo movement”, she said. “The first issue is the period of limitation, second is the right of the person accused to have his reputation protected, and the third issue is of due process.”

Unlike the case in the United States, there is no period of limitation within which a sexual harassment accusation can be made. Luthra remarked,

Courts need to decide where does the buck stop.

Further asserting that reputation of an accused is as important as that of the victim, Luthra posed several questions.

Can we damn a person before a trial? #Metoo is not a matter of trial, but a matter of bringing something in the social media to name and shame. How do we strike a balance? Can someone who has built his reputation for over 30 years be blamed even before a trial? You cannot have two parallel trials (one on social media and one before the court).”

She also warned the audience of the possibility of the #MeToo movement being misused for undue gains. Most complaints are genuine, but there is a possibility of some of them being false, she said.

She went on the state that the most important question, therefore, is, how to balance free speech with the right to fair trial and right to one’s reputation.

It is interesting to note that Senior Advocate Luthra is currently representing former Union Minister MJ Akbar in his defamation case filed against journalist Priya Ramani who has accused him of sexual harassment misconduct. Ramani is one of several women who has levelled allegations of sexual misconduct and harassment against Akbar, following the #MeToo revolution in India.

Justice Hima Kohli began her address by quoting Swami Vivekananda.

Best thermometer to measure the progress of a nation is to see how its women are treated“, she said.

Kolhi J stated that although we have travelled a long way from Vishakha, and criminal law has also witnessed several amendments, the poor implementation of the same is worrisome.

She further stated that the level of awareness in rural and semi-rural areas, and the unorganized and marginalized sectors is very poor.

Marginalized sector is worse off with little or no back up when it comes to sexual harassment”, she said.

Therefore, the need of the hour is to have a policy in place, a charter of conduct, updating service law, sensitizing the public about the law, and creating awareness, Kohli J demanded.

She further stated that the #MeToo campaign has certainly created awareness around the issue, but it also raises several ethical issues.

She concluded her address by stating that the need of the hour was to change the male mindset in such a way that they are willing to go the extra mile for a female colleague. They must be ready to step up, to muster the courage to speak up (if they witness a female colleague being sexually harassed at the workplace), she said.

Justice Kohli also informed the gathering that the Delhi High Court’s Committee against Sexual Harassment is working on Regulations that would comprehensively define the terms “workplace”, “victim” etc and deal with the issue of sexual harassment in the High Court.

The event ended with a vote of thanks by Senior Advocate Inderbir Alag.

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