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  • Writer's pictureDevika Agarwal

Inquiry Process & Standard of Proof in Sexual Harassment Cases under Central Civil Services Rules, 1965





On 6 November 2023 the Supreme Court of India in Union of India v. Dilip Paul, ruled on the manner of inquiry into sexual harassment complaints by the Central Complaints Committee constituted under Central Civil Services (Classification, Control and Appeal) Rules, 1965 (CCS Rules) as well as the standard of proof required in such cases.


This case is important to the extent that it establishes the scope of judicial review of disciplinary proceedings in sexual harassment cases. The SC observed that the scope of judicial review of the courts is limited only to the “propriety of the decision-making process and the fairness of the inquiry procedure”. Importantly, the court held that the standard of proof required in disciplinary proceedings is ‘preponderance of probabilities’ and not ‘proof beyond all reasonable doubt’.


Background & Brief Facts:


The case related to sexual harassment allegations by a woman employee (complainant) who was a Field Assistant, against Dilip Paul (respondent) who served as Area Organizer (the Local Head of Office of the Service Selection Board), Rangia, State of Assam between September 2006 to May 2012. Specifically, the complainant lodged a complaint dated 30.08.2011 (first complaint) to the Frontier Headquarters, Guwahati alleging that the respondent had sexually harassed her inter alia by making phone calls to her at night, visiting her house when the complainant’s husband was out of town, making the complainant sit for long hours in his office and making sexually colored remarks.


A Central Complaints Committee (CCC) was constituted on 06.08.2012 under the Standing Order №1 of 2006 (Grievances Redressal Mechanism: To Redress Grievances of Women/Sexual Harassment at Work Place) (2006 Standing Order) to inquire into the sexual harassment allegations. On 18.09.2012, the complainant submitted a second complaint (second complaint) directly to the CCC containing additional allegations against the respondent.


The CCC submitted its inquiry report (CCC Inquiry Report) to the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) on 28.12.2012 concluding that the sexual harassment allegations against the respondent had been proved. Accordingly, the MHA (vide its order dated 05.01.2016) imposed a penalty of ‘withholding of 50% of monthly pension on permanent basis’ on the respondent who had superannuated in March 2013.


The respondent first challenged the CCC Inquiry Report before the Central Administrative Tribunal, Guwahati (CAT) which dismissed the respondent’s application. The respondent then preferred a writ petition before the Gauhati High Court against the CAT order as well as the MHA order to withhold 50% of the respondent’s monthly pension. The HC ruled that the CCC had originally been constituted to inquire into only the first complaint under the relevant Standing Order and therefore, the CCC had erred by also taking into consideration the second complaint which had been filed subsequently. The HC found that the CCC had asked questions to the prosecution witnesses and conducted examination-in-chief. Accordingly, the HC ruled that playing the role of a prosecutor by the CCC vitiated the disciplinary proceedings. Further, the HC found that the CCC’s findings were based on surmises and conjectures and were not supported by evidence. Accordingly, the Gauhati HC allowed the writ petition by the respondent and set aside MHA’s order of penalty.


Against the order of the HC, the Union of India (appellant) filed an appeal before the Supreme Court.


Legal Issues:


1. Whether the CCC may look into the 2nd complaint (dated 18.09.2012), given that it was filed after the constitution of the CCC?

2. Whether the CCC may put questions to the witnesses (similar to a prosecutor) in the course of the departmental inquiry?

3. What is the standard of evidence required in disciplinary proceedings related to sexual harassment complaints?


Relevant Legislation:


Rule 3C of the CCS Rules, the proviso to Rule 14(2) of the CCS Rules and the 2006 Standing Order comprise the entire legislative framework for dealing with sexual harassment at workplace complaints in connection with the Central civil services and posts.


Supreme Court’s Findings:


1. Whether the CCC may inquire into the 2nd complaint (dated 18.09.2012), given that it was filed after the constitution of the CCC?

Clause 10(i) of the 2006 Standing Order states that an aggrieved person shall prefer a complaint to the Complaints Committee at the earliest point of time. The SC ruled that nothing in clause 10(i) inhibits the filing of an additional complaint before the Complaints Committee.


At the same time, the SC noted that it was important to consider whether any serious prejudice was caused to the respondent in the context of the 2nd complaint. The SC applied the ‘test of prejudice’ laid down in an earlier decision, State Bank of Patiala v. S.K. Sharma. Accordingly, the Court found that by inquiring into the 2nd complaint by the CCC, no serious prejudice (i.e. loss of fair hearing) was caused to the respondent as the respondent was aware of the contents of the 2nd complaint and had been given an opportunity to respond appropriately to the allegations contained therein.


Notably, the SC relied on its decision in Apparel Export Promotion Council v. A.K. Chopra and UOI v. Mudrika Singhwherein it was held that courts should not get swayed by “insignificant discrepancies or hyper-technicalities” when exercising the power of judicial review in matters of disciplinary proceedings relating to sexual harassment.


Accordingly, the SC held that under clause 10(i), the CCC had the power to inquire into the 2nd complaint which was preferred directly to the CCC right after the CCC was constituted and before CCC’s first hearing.


2. Whether the CCC may put questions to the witnesses (assuming the role of a prosecutor) in the course of the departmental inquiry?

In a disciplinary proceeding conducted under Rule 14 of the CCS Rules, the disciplinary authority may either conduct the inquiry itself or appoint an inquiry committee to conduct the inquiry. In an earlier decision in Medha Kotwal Lele v. UOI, it was held that the complaints committee under the Vishakha Guidelines shall be deemed to be the Inquiry Authority. Further, the 2006 Standing Order lays down the complaint mechanism to redress sexual harassment at the workplace which envisages that the questions for cross-examination of the complainant by the accused shall be vetted by the Chairperson of the Complaints Committee. The 2006 Standing Order contains a reference to Sakshi v. UOI wherein the SC held that questions for cross-examination of victims in sexual harassment cases should be given in writing to the Presiding Officer who shall put them to the witnesses in a language which is clear and not embarrassing.


The SC in the instant case ruled that the complaints committee being an inquiry committee and equivalent to the presiding officer of the court (as inferred from Sakshi), must be allowed to put questions to the witnesses on its own during the inquiry, unless a specific case of bias is made out against the members of the committee.


3. What is the standard of evidence required in disciplinary proceedings related to sexual harassment complaints?

The SC relied on Aureliano Fernandes v. State of Goa which held that the findings of fact during disciplinary proceedings are exempt from judicial review except in cases wherein there was “no evidence” to support the findings and/or the ultimate decision based on such findings was perverse/unreasonable. The court clarified that no evidence does not connote a dearth of evidence, rather the rule refers to a situation wherein the evidence, taken as a whole, does not reasonably support the finding. Further, the SC relied on its earlier decision in B.C. Chaturvedi v. UOI which established that the technical rules for proof of fact/evidence laid down under the Indian Evidence Act do not apply to disciplinary proceedings. Citing West Bokaro Colliery (TISCO Ltd.) v. Ram Pravesh Singh, the SC held that the standard of proof required in disciplinary proceedings is ‘preponderance of probabilities’ and not ‘proof beyond all reasonable doubt’.


The SC found that the instant case was not a case of ‘no evidence’, rather there was evidence (such as oral evidence of witnesses) to substantiate the sexual harassment allegations made by the complainant.

Based on the above findings, the SC allowed the appeal and set aside the judgment of the Gauhati HC.


References:


· Apparel Export Promotion Council v. A.K. Chopra, (1999) 1 SCC 759

· Aureliano Fernandes v. State of Goa, Civil Appeal №2482 of 2014

· B.C. Chaturvedi v. UOI, (1995) 6 SCC 749

· Medha Kotwal Lele v. UOI, (2013) 1 SCC 311

· Sakshi v. UOI, AIR 2004 SC 3566

· State Bank of Patiala v. S.K. Sharma, (1996) 3 SCC 364

· Union of India v. Dilip Paul, Civil Appeal №6190 of 2023

· UOI v. Mudrika Singh, 2021 SCC OnLine SC 1173

· West Bokaro Colliery (TISCO Ltd.) v. Ram Pravesh Singh, (2008) 3 SCC 729

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