Sexual harassment at workplace: Bombay HC lays down guidelines to protect identity of those involved

The Bombay High Court recently passed guidelines or working protocol for courts, their registries and media for conducting and covering proceedings pertaining to the sexual harassment of women at the workplace and held that it is imperative to protect the identities of the parties in such hearings.

“It is imperative to protect the identities of the parties from disclosure, even accidental disclosure, in these proceedings. This is in the interest of both sides…These are only initial guidelines, and will necessarily be subject to revision or modification as needed. I would suggest that these guidelines are the minimum required,” the judge said.

Justice Gautam S Patel passed the order on Friday while hearing a plea filed through advocate Abha Singh under the Sexual Harassment of Women at the Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013.

The bench noted that there were no established guidelines in such matters and therefore it set out a working protocol or initial guidelines for future orders, hearings and case filing management of such matters. Justice Patel noted that names of the parties will not be mentioned in the order nor will any personally identifiable information (PII) including email ids, mobile or telephone numbers, addresses, along with names of witnesses’ names be recorded in it.

Such orders should not be uploaded on the court’s website and the verdict shall be delivered in private, only in chambers or through in-camera proceedings and not in open court, it said. The HC said no PII of parties shall be retained by the registry when any affidavit, application or pleading is being filed and parties should use anonymous title for the case.

Justice Patel added that parties to the case, lawyers and witnesses “are prohibited from disclosing contents of any order, judgment or filing to the media or publishing any such material in any mode or fashion by any means, including social media, without specific leave of the court.”

Moreover, none except advocates on record can inspect copies of any filing or order. The entire record is to be kept sealed and not to be given to any person without a court order and not to be digitised by any third-party solution provider without an order of the court.

The court said witness depositions shall not be uploaded under any circumstances and all hearings will be conducted in chambers of the judges or in-camera and through physical mode only.

It added that only advocates and the litigants are permitted to attend hearings. While court master/associate and stenographer or a person providing secretarial assistance is allowed in the court, support staff such as clerks and peons must leave. The bench said verdicts in such matters can be released in the public domain only in case of a specific order from the court to do so.

The judge said that all persons, including the media, are required to ensure strict compliance with the conditions of anonymity of parties and failure to do so will be contempt of court. Furthermore, recording of any part of the proceedings in any form is strictly forbidden and any such attempt would also be liable for contempt of court.