NEW DELHI: In 2000, a young woman lawyer in Andhra Pradesh committed suicide allegedly due to sexual harassment by three lawyers. Earlier this year, two major incidents came to light – one involving former Justice Swatanter Kumar, who was accused of sexually harassing an intern in 2011, although he has firmly denied the allegation, and another that saw Justice A.K. Ganguly, another former judge of the Supreme Court, in the eye of the storm after a female intern charged him with sexually harassing her in a hotel room in 2012.

More recently, the news of an additional district and sessions judge in Gwalior stepping down in order “to protect her dignity” came as another shock. According to reports, in her complaint to the Chief Justice of India R.M. Lodha and Madhya Pradesh High Court chief justice, she has alleged that the administrative judge from Gwalior bench of the MP High Court wanted her to visit his bungalow alone. The judge had apparently even sent her a message through the district registrar to “perform dance on an item song” at a function in his residence.

While it’s not often that instances of intimidation and sexual harassment in the legal profession grab the spotlight, this by no means is a reflection of the reality on the ground. Women lawyers and judges, who are otherwise responsible for safeguarding the rights of ordinary people, are just as unsafe and vulnerable in their workplace as their counterparts in other professions.

According to Indira Jaising, noted advocate and former Additional Solicitor General, “What comes out in the open is just the tip of the iceberg. Few women actually speak up as they fear professional backlash.” In the Gwalior case, Jaising has openly stated that “the Chief Justice of India should institute an internal enquiry and the accused judge should be suspended from all work…” Additionally, she feels that the resignation of the woman judge should not be accepted.

Further commenting on the complaint filed by the Gwalior additional district and sessions judge, Vrinda Grover, a well-known human rights advocate, says, “If a judge is capable of sexual harassment, you can imagine what kind of mindset would be at play during delivery of justice at his court.”

Interestingly, sexual harassment in the legal profession is a risk that women face the world over. According to a Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission report, one-in-four female lawyers in Victoria, Australia, had experienced sexual harassment at work. The incidents were under reported and contributed to women leaving the profession. Most had chosen to remain silent fearing ostracism, while others were not aware of the complaint processes.

In the Indian context, there are several factors that up the threat quotient – from the way the courts are structurally designed to the inherent inequalities in the system that do not allow many women to rise to the top. “Sexual harassment is common in our profession. One experiences it even in the Supreme Court – in the corridors, chambers, etc,” rues Anandita Pujari, practicing advocate in the Supreme Court. Indeed, the way a court house is built – including narrow corridors, cramped courtrooms, and poor restrooms facilities – leaves scope for both physical and mental harassment. “Usually, there is a lot of rush in the court rooms. One gets get pushed and pulled and it becomes even difficult to operate,” she adds.

Pujari reveals how her friend had to deal with a stalker in the Supreme Court. She not only lodged a complaint with the police but also took the matter to the Gender Sensitisation and Internal Complaints Committee of the Apex court. Fortunately for her, the male advocate who was harassing her was banned from entering the court for six months after the Complaints Committee found him guilty.

Nevertheless, there are not many women like Pujari’s friend who can raise their voice against an erring colleague. Fact is that the legal profession is absolutely male-dominated and it’s very easy to be labelled as a troublemaker or get sidelined professionally. The Gwalior judge had to face this setback first-hand. She has alleged that she was transferred to a remote place “for not fulfilling his aspirations and for not visiting his bungalow alone even once”. She has added that he threatened to “spoil her career completely and make sure that she faces ruinous prospects all her life."

The fears that women lawyers harbour are certainly not unfounded. In a survey conducted by law students in the late 1990s, on the problems faced by female lawyers, most of the respondents chose to stick to the ‘no comments’ option when it came to answering the question on harassment. However, during unofficial conversations they attributed their silence to the apprehension of being thrown out of office. In another assessment done by a body of lawyers, of the 85 women professionals surveyed in Delhi 80 per cent reported experiencing some form of sexual harassment.

“The biases are evident. There are hardly any female judges, especially in the higher courts. It is very difficult for a woman advocate to get promoted to the position of a judge,” states Shamona Khanna, a senior advocate.

Khanna is not wrong. The combined strength of women judges in the Supreme Court and High Courts is just 20. While the Supreme Court has only one woman out of a total of 28 judges, the High Courts have 19 female judges out of the total sanctioned strength of 647.

It is only recently that women have started getting appointed as judges. “Women excel in all professions. Then why do they not get equal opportunities in the legal profession,” wonders Jaising. The problem perhaps lies in the fact that there is a total lack of transparency in the process of the appointment of judges. “There is no clarity on the issue of who should become a judge. The names of advocates that are shortlisted to be elevated to the position of a judge are not made known to the fraternity at large. It is only through word of mouth that one can guess who are in the fray,” Pujari reveals.

Apart from the obvious disparities, which are largely a result of a patriarchal mindset, women suffer on account of the multiple roles they play in their life, especially because there are no support systems in place in courts. According to lawyers, litigation is demanding and pregnant women or those who have small children simply have to take a step back.

Of course, coming to the redress of sexual harassment cases, it is no easier just because there are lawyers involved. Though the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013, which is based on the Vishaka Guidelines issued by the Supreme Court in 1997, promises to protect women from sexual harassment at place of work, for women lawyers, the ‘workplace’ is courts. Moreover, the lawyers practising in the courts are not ‘employees’ of the judges. Therefore, the definitions of ‘workplace’, ‘employees’, ‘employers’ in sexual harassment law needs to be broadened to address the issue.

However, certain steps have been taken by the Apex court to set an example. Physically, the corridors in the complex have been widened and are now well lit and a Gender Sensitisation and Internal Complaints Committee has been set up to look into sexual harassment complaints. Unfortunately, in some high courts such committees are non-existent while in others they are defunct. Also, whereas complaints against fellow advocates can be addressed through these committees, there is no established mechanism to address such a complaint against a sitting judge.

In her complain the Gwalior sessions judge has posed a pertinent question that gives everyone a lot to think about: ‘What system are we following and leading this democracy to?’

(Women's Feature Service)