Say interns lack confidence in the system to speak up against seniors harassing them

A young law intern’s allegation of sexual harassment by a former Supreme Court judge has drawn mixed reactions from the legal fraternity.

While some claimed that the complaint was an “aberration”, others felt that sexual abuse was “widespread” and a “well kept secret” of the judiciary.

Recalling the alleged incident of “sexual assault,” the intern wrote in her blog: “In Delhi at that time, [December 2012, shortly after the December 16 gang-rape in Delhi] interning during the winter vacations of my final year in university, I dodged police barricades and fatigue to go to the assistance of a highly reputed, recently retired Supreme Court judge whom I was working under during my penultimate semester. For my supposed diligence, I was rewarded with sexual assault (not physically injurious, but nevertheless violating) from a man old enough to be my grandfather. I won’t go into the gory details, but suffice is to say that long after I’d left the room, the memory remained, in fact, still remains, with me….”

Some advocates said complaints of sexual harassment are not followed up because there is “no confidence” in the redressal system. Many also feared they would be “victimised.”

“Interns and young lawyers do not have the confidence to take on senior lawyers, leave alone judges. Proving the allegation is tough because the provability of evidence is low,” said a former bar council member.

A senior Supreme Court lawyer could not recall any instance of a complaint against a judge. “We have heard of instances of interns having faced problems with senior lawyers or even their peers, but there has been no formal complaint against a judge, sitting or retired,” he said.

Some senior advocates said there is no sexual harassment committee in the Supreme Court. “There has to be a redressal system, headed by a judge, which invokes confidence among complainants. The Supreme Court recently framed guidelines to deal with sexual harassment on its premises, but this is an interim committee and not sufficiently publicised,” lawyer Vibha Makhija said.

The victim’s refusal to file a formal complaint has drawn sharp reactions. In her blog, she alleged that she was sexually assaulted in a hotel room, but chooses not to mention the judge’s name.

“As mentioned earlier, I bore, and still bear, no real ill-will towards the man, and had no desire to put his life’s work and reputation in question. On the other hand, I felt I had a responsibility to ensure that other young girls were not put in a similar situation…” she wrote. “If you make an allegation, then your intention is not to keep [it] a secret. The ideal thing to do is to take it to its logical conclusion, file a complaint and allow investigation. By withholding the name, but indicating it is a retired judge, there is a general maligning of the entire judiciary. We cannot land the entire profession into jeopardy; and accusations as serious as this cannot be generic,” said senior lawyer Pinky Anand.

Zeba Khair, who is on sexual harassment committees of a few multi-national companies, said due to the hierarchical relationship between junior lawyers and seniors, trainee women lawyers at times find themselves in a situation where they cannot dare to raise their voice if they feel sexually harassed by their seniors.

Almost the same conditions prevail for women administrative staff working in courts, she said, adding that subordinate women staff and trainee women lawyers remain in awe of their superiors. They cannot gather enough courage to speak out against sexual harassment, if any, by their superiors, Ms. Khair added.

However, Subhra Parashar, another young woman lawyer, denied that women lawyers face sexual harassment at the hands of their seniors. She demanded that an independent body be set up to hear their complaints so that they get justice.