Sexual Harassment and Redressal Mechanism in Courts: Notes from West Bengal

Everyday sexism and misogyny pervade courts in India. The disappointing role played by internal complaints committees in handling sexual harassment complaints only further victimise those who reach out to them.

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“It is a male club, there is no doubt about it…even if you have a formal redressal mechanism in the courts against instances of sexual harassment, the institution will always protect its own… create your own space, own it… it is a long journey to reach a place of equity for women litigants and beyond….”

These words of Rebecca John, senior advocate in the Supreme Court, rang in my ears as I left her chamber after an hour-long conversation on sexual harassment in courts and the disappointing role of internal complaints committees (ICCs). John, a former adjudicator in the Delhi high court ICC, had no hesitation in calling the system “hopeless” in becoming a trusted mechanism, accessible to victims and ensuring the prevention of sexual harassment in workplaces.


“It has been a year but that incident still terrifies me. I can neither forget it nor gulp it down,” shares Sampurna A* (name changed), a young lawyer practising at the Calcutta high court.

A few days before the incident, she had received a friend request over Facebook from a senior and well-known male advocate, working in the same court. She knew his name and accepted his request. Then began his messages.

He initiated the conversation normally and there wasn’t any hint initially as to where he wanted it to lead. Slowly, his advances started gathering sexual colour. He stalked all her Facebook pictures and his comments ranged from giving her his ‘piece of mind’ (with clear sexual innuendos) on each picture to asking her to ‘open herself up’ in the court too, stating that “your Facebook pictures suggest you are not at all how you dress up and come to the court it seems”.

Sampurna was taken aback. Her replies were limited to mere ‘hmms’ and ‘oks’, but the man would not stop. In spite of her trying to avoid the conversation, he his comments on her physical appearance continued until she finally gathered the courage to block the account.

Sampurna had only recently joined the profession, full of hope and expectation. But she tells this author that after that incident, she is apprehensive of each man she meets in court. She comes face to face with the harasser quite often and a chill runs down her spine each time, along with feelings of disgust and helplessness.

Also read: Public Humiliation, Witness Silence, Gender Bias in ‘Sexist’ Harassment Cases

What could she do, she asked me. I did not have an answer. However, I know that she is not the only woman lawyer who has experienced sexual harassment in courtrooms, chamber spaces, seniors’ houses or other spaces of work. By travelling to different courts in West Bengal and asking about harassment, I met some women who spoke up. But there were many more who did not want to.

Culture of silence

“There is a lot of silence in courts and amongst female lawyers regarding issues of sexual harassment. Does it mean it does not happen? I am practicing for many decades now. I know they happen, but there is a perpetual silence,” said Chandrayee Alam, a senior lawyer in the Calcutta high court.

The high court at Calcutta has an ICC that was formed in 2010 for the female staff members of the court. When information was sought regarding the functioning of the said committee, it was found that till January 2022, only three cases were filed. One of them was disposed of and the remaining two were pending. However, no redressal mechanism exists for female lawyers. Information was sought in the district courts too and it was found that few had an ICC for the staff members, a couple of them included women lawyers and the others refused to respond to the queries.

Calcutta high court. Credit: Avrajyoti Mitra/Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

Calcutta high court. Photo: Avrajyoti Mitra/Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

The Supreme Court in Binu Tamta vs High Court of Delhi framed regulations at the apex court level, calling them Gender Sensitisation and Sexual Harassment of Women in Supreme Court of India (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Regulations, 2013 (GSICC). The top court directed every high court and district court to frame their own regulations similar to the GSICC. However, the high court at Calcutta is one of the eleven high courts which have not complied with such directions.

Apathy of administration

The initial response of the court administration to queries relating to the existing ICC demonstrated the apathy that surrounds the issue. The administration seemed to have no clue where the files of the ICC were or who would know where they were. After months of following up, partial information was received. I also moved an appeal when it was made clear that such a department was not a priority.

Also read: Gender Bias Against Women at Workplace Is Not Sexual Harassment Under POSH: Kerala HC

Through my study, I asked more than 50 members of the high court – lawyers, staff and non-staff members – if they were aware of any ICC in the court. All of them replied in the negative. It was not surprising as there is, in fact, no sign of such a committee in the entire premise of the Calcutta high court, not even on the website. When asked why it was not publicised, officials issued dry statements such as, “The women who needed to know would know, and you should not worry.”

Usual workplace atmosphere

But there is a lot to worry about the absence of any mechanism for women lawyers and the presence of a half-hearted committee in an enormously male-dominated, sexist environment.

“I have worked in several chambers and the general environment is supremely sexist. Sexist jokes on fellow lawyers, female judges or clients are commonplace,” opines Sampurna. “If you protest, you will have to face the consequences. On one occasion, I stopped receiving emails from my senior and was not up to date on matters. I later found out that another man was given my work… these are humiliating and affect your performance immensely.”

“Women don’t support women and that is one of the biggest issues, even though it is not out of choice,” Sampurna says, reflecting on her experiences. “There is a constant pressure on women to be in the good books of men to get matters…which are mostly in men’s hands. Women supporting men are the ones welcomed in their club. You’ll simply be ousted by everyone.”

But the problem is not with protesting or questioning. It is the differential treatment. Mostly when a male lawyer points out things to male seniors, they are instantly welcomed with compliments, and their intelligence is praised. But in a similar situation, the woman might be ridiculed for being ‘too sensitive’, belittled for being a ‘troublemaker’ and perceived as a menace.

This extensively resonated with Sutapa Dey, a junior lawyer practising in district courts in Bengal. She added, “I have shared my anxieties and inability to handle certain discriminatory instances with my seniors (male and female), and it breaks my heart to say that all the compassion I have received is through statements like, ‘it’s a man’s world, you have to adjust’… ‘it’s a cut throat profession and you cannot get affected by small things’.”

It is everyday language like this that further enables the perpetuation of a culture of normalising harassment. This kind of language is often spoken even by trained members of ICCs too.

Representative image. Photo: Pixabay

Chama Shrivastava, a senior lawyer in the Calcutta high court and a current member of four ICCs in universities and companies, identifies courts as ‘open workplaces’ and suggests that if one is sexually harassed by a male senior, she can “move away” as there is nothing stopping her.

She stresses how it would be difficult for a woman to leave a ‘closed workplace’, but there is no point in having any redressal of sexual harassment in courts for women lawyers as they can simply move away if uncomfortable. By “move away”, the lawyer meant if the harasser is not someone in her chamber she can leave that physical space. Or if he is a senior, the lawyer could join another senior. The point of accountability was completely lost.

This raises multiple questions.

Firstly of course, on the overall misogynistic culture of enabling harassment and discrimination in different ways. Secondly, a complete lack of training for adjudicating members of ICCs who have their misogyny intact as they sit to hear victims. When I sought information about the number of training sessions conducted by the ICC in the high court, the reply was, “The members include Honourable Justices who do not require training.”

No faith in ICC

But what could one’s experience be, if an ICC did exist and a complaint was filed?

Justice (Retired) Kesang Doma Bhutia, on the day of her high court farewell, told this author about an experience while she was a district judge.

One of her female staff members reported an incident of sexual harassment by a judicial officer. Being the district judge, she called the perpetrator to her chamber and reprimanded him for his actions in front of the staffer.

The judge was asked by the author why she did not advise the victim to lodge a written complaint with the committee (an ICC did exist in that court for staff).

In disbelief, she asked, “What would have happened? You expect a young staff member to gather the courage to speak before a committee comprising powerful people? She would be made to feel intimidated, and it would yield nothing.”

The retired judge says because she always stood up to wrongs in her courts, she was called names like ‘ladhaku’, ‘jhogrute’, (terms which mean ‘aggressive’ or ‘combative’ and used in a sarcastic and taunting way for women who speak up) by other judicial officers.

“Many times, women do not know that there is a committee where they can file complaints. There are no boards to publicise it. There are no training programmes or workshops conducted for people to know,” a woman judge in the Calcutta high court said, expressing her concern.

She said raising awareness is crucial. From her years of experience in the lower courts, she said lack of awareness on issues of sexual harassment makes women often remain silent and tolerate harassment. There was a deafening silence, she says. The judge admits she does not know whether there was any redressal committee in the district court she presided over.

Judicial response

The Indian judiciary too, more often than not, has not taken a strong initiative towards making courts safe and equitable workplaces for women.

Indeed, even the Supreme Court forming the GSICC was the consequence of the courts ignoring a serious harassment incident. In 2012, an employee of the Delhi high court was caught peeping into the toilet used by female lawyers. The high court did not take suo motu action and the Supreme Court formulated guidelines only after two women filed a public interest litigation (PIL).

Also read: From the Supreme Court, a Reminder that Justice Was Sacrificed to Save a Judge

Similarly, a few years ago, a petition was filed in the Kerala high court for proper implementation of the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplaces (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2014 across Kerala, including courts. The petitioner therein shared his experience, revealing the disregard of the court on this issue throughout the proceeding.

He says, “At the end, I was told by the Bench that I should not expect perfection and rather be happy that at least something is being done.”

Can only the ‘bare minimum’ be expected from the judiciary too?

The varied idea of justice

But what do victims of sexual harassment want? Several victims told this author that they wanted to ask their perpetrators why they were harassed.

Sampurna looks at the idea of an ICC as, “a place to vent out mostly, a place I can trust”. Instead of inclining on ICCs as a punitive body taking disciplinary actions, there is perhaps a serious need for creating a space that is preventive, paying more heed to reformation rather than punishment, education rather than surveillance and above all accessible.

A senior professor of Jawaharlal Nehru University, who wants to stay anonymous, who worked on sexual harassment in workplaces, said that representation and a democratic nature are paramount. She said the example of the Gender Sensitisation Committee against Sexual Harassment, followed in educational institutes, should be the model to emulate because it “was a success…it was representative and democratic”.

Class and caste representation is also necessary to make ICCs more independent and accessible for all persons. Most of the ICCs across courts in India, including Bengal, are appointed bodies. The question of having elected representatives and more inclusive bodies should be raised.

Sampurna was asked if she would have filed a complaint to an ICC existed. She said, “I am not sure if I would be able to file a complaint. But talking about it and feeling supported would help. When I shared my experience with my friends, they listened to me and supported me. Can I ask for such a mechanism from an ICC?”

Even to receive that bare minimum, the road seems a long one.

Senjuti Chakrabarti is an advocate practising at the Calcutta high court.