Courtrooms are often seen as the bastion of justice and fairness in our society, involving advocates and judges, who are important elements of the justice delivery system. Every now and then, courts have demonstrated that they are always available to the public if their rights and liberties are violated. But what if a place where disputes are settled impartially and the rule of law prevails also suffers from women’s safety issues that are prevalent all over the world? Indeed, it might be an issue that seems extraneous in terms of women’s safety in the world, but there have been past cases of the same nature, corroborating the fact that women have faced safety-related issues in courtrooms as well.
For certain women, courtrooms have been a scene of harassment, abuse, and prejudice. It’s not just a problem in our nation; it affects a number of nations around the world. In this piece of writing, I will examine the difficulties, regulations, and potential fixes for this issue.
Challenges faced by women in courtrooms
Women have faced a variety of challenges when it comes to the judiciary and courtrooms, inhibiting the appropriate delivery of justice to people and the inclusion of women in the judicial sector. Some of the predominant challenges are:
- Discrimination: We can all agree on the fact that discrimination against women has occurred in a number of the world’s job and educational areas. Similarly, one of the professions where women have experienced discrimination is the judiciary. Men have always outnumbered women, rendering conditions unfavourable for the latter in not just courtrooms but also other areas/places associated with the judiciary, such as law schools or law school entrance tests.
- Sexual harassment: In the past, it has been discovered that judges and attorneys have engaged in instances of unwanted sexual advances, remarks, and physical contact with women in exchange for a favour.
- Lack of safety measures: Courtrooms in India and other nations frequently lack adequate safety precautions to prevent any risks to women’s safety and further redressal mechanisms if any such occurrences take place on the court premises.
- Stigmatization: Women who speak out against any prejudice or physical, mental, or emotional abuse have often faced negative stereotypes and labels that are unfavourable and push them out of the mainstream.
Past instances/allegations of women’s safety-related issues
There have been instances in the past where female solicitors have brought accusations of assault, sexual harassment, and disparaging statements against their male counterparts and judges.
- In 2013, during the “Nirbhaya gang rape case” demonstrations that erupted across India, a law graduate from NUJS, Kolkata, accused Justice A.K. Ganguly, a former Supreme Court justice, of sexually abusing her. Justice P. Sathasivam, then Chief Justice of India, further appointed a three-judge team to look into the allegations. Although the former judge was ultimately found guilty of the charge, Justice Ganguly had already retired before the occurrence, so no further action could be taken.
- In 2014, a woman who was an additional district and sessions judge in Gwalior resigned from her position after accusing a judge on the Madhya Pradesh high court’s Gwalior bench of sexual harassment. Thankfully, the Supreme Court ordered the female officer’s reinstatement in February 2022.
- In April of this year, the Shivajinagar police detained an autorickshaw driver on allegations of passing lewd remarks, molestation, and assaulting a female attorney on the premises of the district and sessions court.
- In 2018, a senior attorney at Saket District Court allegedly raped a 29-year-old woman advocate within his chambers after the latter called her on the pretext of discussing a court case.
- In 2019, a judge on the Madras High Court asked a woman lawyer if she had a busy morning in the kitchen when her arguments faltered. The question was met with laughter from everyone in the courtroom.
Laws pertaining to the issue that can help
- Relevant sections of the Indian Penal Code, 1860: Section 354 (Assault or criminal force to woman with intent to outrage her modesty), Section 354-A (Sexual harassment and punishment for sexual harassment), Section 354-C (Voyeurism), Section 354-D (Stalking), Section 376 (Punishment of rape), and Section 509 (Word, gesture, or act intended to insult the modesty of a woman) are some sections present in the IPC that can be useful when it comes to women’s safety in courtrooms.
- Criminal Law Amendment Act, 2013: Following the Nirbhaya gang rape case, the Justice J.S. Verma Committee made several pertinent recommendations for changes to the laws/sections governing rape, sexual harassment, trafficking, child sexual abuse, victim medical examination, and police, electoral, and educational reforms. These recommendations ultimately resulted in this act.
- Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition, and Redressal) Act, 2013: Commonly known as the POSH (Prevention of Sexual Harassment at Workplace) Act, this law was passed to protect women from workplace sexual harassment as well as to prevent and address sexual harassment complaints through the formation of an “Internal Complaints Committee” at every workplace under “Section 4 of the act.”
- Under Section 19, this act mandates the employer of a workplace to provide a safe working environment and organize workshops and awareness programmes for sensitizing employees.
The POSH legislation frequently raises the question of the scope of the workplace: Does it simply apply to “the office” or is it broad enough to cover other workplaces, such as courtrooms?
Ambit/Scope of workplace under the POSH Act and the Case Laws surrounding the same
Before the POSH Act came to the fore, “The Vishaka Guidelines” (that came from the case of “Vishaka & Ors vs. State Of Rajasthan & Ors”) were the set of rules that governed sexual harassment at workplaces. Although the Vishaka Guidelines only applied to traditional office settings, the POSH Act introduced the concept of an “extended workplace.”
The term “workplace” is defined in Section 2(o)(i) of the act as “an institution that is wholly or substantially funded by the appropriate government,” which logically includes the Supreme Court (whose funding is provided by the federal government), as well as high courts and lower courts (which are primarily funded by state governments) as a workplace.
Courts have already emphasized the significance of an extended definition of the workplace in certain case laws.
- Saurabh Kumar Mallick v. Comptroller & Auditor General Of India & Anr. (2008): Justice A.K. Sikri opined that “a narrow and pedantic approach cannot be taken in defining the term ‘workplace’ by confining the meaning to the commonly understood expression “office,” which is a place where any person of the public could have access.”
- Ayesha Khatun v. The State Of West Bengal & Ors. (2012): Justice Jyotirmay Bhattacharya opined that “Workplace should be given a broader and wider meaning so that the said guidelines (Vishaka Guidelines) can be applied where its application is needed even beyond the compound of the workplace for removal of the obstacles… which prevent a working woman from attending her place of work and also for providing a suitable and congenial atmosphere to her in her place of work where she can continue her service with honour and dignity.”
Probable steps to counter women’s security-related issues in courtrooms
- Workshops on gender sensitization: The Bar Council of India (BCI) must see to it that gender sensitization sessions are periodically held in the courts so that judges, attorneys, and court staff may become more aware of not only the needs of women but also those of the third gender.
- Inclusion of suitable safety measures and a grievance procedure in the court system: Courts must make sure that they have the necessary safety precautions in place to guarantee that accidents of this nature do not occur on court premises. They should also make sure that they have an effective redressal process that resolves their grievance as soon as possible.
- Provision of female security personnel: Women may feel more at ease and secure in courtrooms when there are female security professionals present. It is crucial to have trained and sensitized female security personnel who can handle situations with care and empathy.
Women’s safety in courtrooms is a critical issue that deserves greater attention and action from both the legal system and society at large. The formulation of new laws to cover the loopholes as well as the proper application of the current laws must be ensured by the Indian government and Bar Council. Ultimately, ensuring women’s safety in courtrooms is not just a matter of justice and human rights but also a fundamental requirement for a fair and functioning legal system that serves all members of society equally.
Author(s) Name: Akshat Sharma (Gujarat National Law University, Gandhinagar)