advocate accused of sexual harassment

The Karnataka HC quashes a suspension order and instructs the State Bar Council to grant a hearing to the advocate accused of sexually harassing a female lawyer.

Introduction: X v. Karnataka State Bar Council & ANR (WP No. 27909 of 2023)  is a writ petition filed in the High Court of Karnataka at Bengaluru, challenging the order dated 05.11.2023 and the subsequent and Notification dated 23.11.2023 issued by the Karnataka State Bar Council, suspending the Petitioner from practicing in any courts of the country. The suspension is related to a complaint filed against the petitioner, alleging sexual harassment. Last year in September, a female advocate filed a sexual harassment complaint against the Petitioner (also an advocate). On September 21, a notice was sent to the Petitioner, who requested 10 to 14 days to provide an explanation. After waiting for 30 days, the Council issued an impugned order of suspension.

Contention of the Petitioner: The petitioner, argues that he was not given a reasonable opportunity to present his defense. He contends that the Council should have allowed him more time to respond to the complaint and that the suspension order is premature. The Petitioner asserts that the complaint itself is not maintainable and should have been addressed under the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013 (POSH).

Response of the Respondents: The Karnataka State Bar Council, represented by its secretary and a complainant, argues that the Petitioner was provided with adequate opportunity to respond, which he did not utilize. They assert that the proceedings were conducted fairly, and the suspension is justified based on the serious nature of the allegations.

Court’s Observation: The court observes that the key issue is whether the Petitioner was given a reasonable opportunity before the suspension order was passed. It notes the timeline of events, including the filing of the complaint, the petitioner’s request for additional time, and the subsequent order of suspension. The Court stated that “….The contents of the order no doubt would result in serious consequences to the Petitioner both civil and professional. Therefore, the Petitioner ought to have been afforded an opportunity to submit his defence in the light of the allegations being of nature that would result in serious consequences. Therefore, I deem it appropriate to grant the Petitioner one more opportunity up to 10.01.2024 to file his objections before the Council.”

Court’s Order: The court sets aside the order dated 05.11.2023 and remits the matter back to the Council. The Petitioner is granted an opportunity to file objections by 10.01.2024. The Council is instructed to consider the objections and regulate the procedure for the continuation of the proceedings.

Conclusion: The court concludes that the Petitioner should be given another chance to present his defense, considering the serious consequences of the allegations. The order of suspension is set aside, and the case is returned to the Council for further consideration in light of the Petitioner’s objections.

-By Adv. Deeksha Rai

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