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India: The inquiry of the Internal Committee cannot be quashed merely because the proceedings were not concluded within the prescribed time frame

In the case of CA Nitesh Parashar versus the Institute of Chartered Accountants of India (ICAI) and Ors. (W.P.(C) 88/2023), an application for interim relief was dismissed. In the instant case, the petitioner is a qualified chartered accountant and is the elected Vice Chairman of the Faridabad branch of the Northern India Regional Council, ICAI. The petitioner received a notice dated December 23, 2022, from the Internal Complaint Committee (“IC”) constituted under the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition, and Redressal) Act, 2013 (“POSH Act”) by the ICAI. He was called to appear before the IC on January 06, 2023, in connection with an inquiry initiated upon a complaint filed by respondent no. 3.

Aggrieved by this, the petitioner filed a writ petition. He sought the following reliefs: (i) to quash the notice dated December 23, 2022, with respect to the second un-dated complaint filed by the respondent under the POSH Act; (ii) to quash the second un-dated complaint; (iii) quash the unsigned complaint dated June 03, 2022 (“First Complaint”); (iv) issue appropriate actions against the respondents and impose exemplary costs on the respondents.

The petitioner’s contention is that respondent no.3 submitted an affidavit dated September 10, 2022 (“Affidavit”) to the IC in which she stated that she made a complaint dated March 24, 2022 (“Initial Complaint”), to respondent no. 4 under POSH Act. However, no action was taken, even after 60 days lapsed. In the Initial Complaint, the petitioner was not named. The petitioner stated that as no response was received, respondent no.3 filed the First Complaint. As the First Complaint was time-barred, respondent no.3 was asked to file an affidavit for condonation of delay. Respondent no.3 filed the Affidavit in that regard. The petitioner further submitted that no order condoning the delay was supplied to the petitioner. The petitioner contended that the IC proceedings should be vitiated since the inquiry under POSH Act had to be completed within 90 days. Further, the petitioner’s grievance is that the complaint in the second complaint dated October 12, 2022 (“Second Complaint”) filed by respondent no.3 is un-dated and pertains to the alleged incident which is the subject matter of the First Complaint. The petitioner submits that he cannot be vexed twice for the same cause of action.

The contention of respondents no.1,2 and 4 was that the Initial Complaint was only a grievance raised and not a complaint in accordance with the POSH Act. They confirmed that respondent no. 3 was asked to file an affidavit for condoning the delay and the Affidavit was filed. The delay was condoned by the IC. The respondents agree that the contents of the First Complaint and Second Complaint are identical. Respondent no.3 submitted that since 6 copies of a complaint were required to be given under the POSH Act, hard copies were submitted in the form of the Second Complaint. The First Complaint was sent via email. Respondent no.3 clarified that there is only one inquiry that is being conducted.

The High Court held that there is no substance to the petitioner’s contention that the proceeding should be vitiated since it was not concluded within 90 days. The petitioner has failed to point out any prejudice caused to him on account of the delay. The Court is of the view that the complaint of sexual harassment and the subsequent inquiry cannot be quashed merely for failing to comply with the time frame given under the POSH Act. The Court also dwelled on the seriousness of sexual harassment complaints and that the prescribed time frame under the POSH Act cannot be said to be mandatory. The Court further observed that the hearing for January 06, 2023, is a part of the inquiry pertaining to the First Complaint. The Court also found merit in respondent no.3’s contention that the Second Complaint was to comply with the requirement under POSH Act. Furthermore, the High Court concluded that there is no question of the petitioner being subject to two inquiries. In light of the foregoing considerations, the application for interim relief was quashed.

Key Action Points for Human Resources and In-house Counsel

Sexual harassment complaints must be treated with the utmost severity, given that courts have repeatedly stressed upon the gravity of matters under the POSH Act. Inquiries can continue even if the time frame of 90 days from the date of the complaint has passed. The intention of the legislature is only to ensure that the proceedings are completed as soon as possible. Mere non-compliance with technicalities does not vitiate the proceedings under the POSH Act.