The Internal Committee (IC) is a quasi judicial body, which works in the sphere of prevention of sexual harassment in workplaces in India. Even though the IC has certain legal obligations as per the law, they also have a social responsibility towards the survivor of sexual harassment. The appointment of the IC under the 2013 Act is to provide easier access to judicial intervention for the survivors.
As the experience of sexual harassment can be overwhelming, the IC is expected to create an environment which makes the Complainant feel safe, heard and understood. The Committee members should follow methods of investigations that are empathetic and unbiased thus creating an accountable and safe space for redressal. This in turn builds credibility in the redressal processes allowing more confidence amongst the survivors and bystanders to report cases of sexual harassment.
When deciding to file a complaint, a survivor is often faced with the question – “I do not have any evidence and there were no witnesses. How will the IC take up my complaint?”
Which leads us to the question: Does the IC look at “evidence” beyond reasonable doubt or through the lens of balance of probabilities?
First let’s try to understand both these principles; Beyond reasonable doubt is the standard of proof required only for criminal courts while a balance of probabilities suggests that more likely than not the incident has occurred. In civil proceedings, like the IC inquiry under the 2013 sexual harassment Act, the standard of proof is preponderance of probabilities.
Situation of sexual harassment often occur in private. Research suggests that in cases of sexual harassment the Complainant is on trial as much as the Respondent. This puts immense pressure on the Complainant to have proof or witnesses to back their complaint without which many fear they will not be believed or fear that the lack of evidence will tarnish their own reputation. This emotional trauma in addition to the trauma of the sexual harassment itself, often deters a survivor from reaching out to the IC. More faith should be devised in the systems put in place. While every legal process must be fair, the lack of proof shouldn’t serve as armour to the perpetrator.
In the case of Tezpur University and Ors. vs. C.S.H.N. Murthy 2016, the court was of the opinion that, “With respect to the vague complaint, it must be borne in mind that having suffered harassment of sexual nature at the hand of her HoD, the Complainant was in a state of shock and dismay. Under such circumstances she could not have been expected to be in a composed state of mind to pen down every minute detail of the entire incident on the very next day of the incident.”
In Medha Kotowal Lele, 2012 case the Supreme Court considered “The standard of proof is preponderance of probability and there is no need to establish the charge of sexual harassment beyond reasonable doubt as in a criminal proceeding. All that is necessary is that the inquiry must be conducted in a fair and transparent manner and in due compliance of the principles of natural justice, after giving full opportunity to the delinquent to defend his case.”
As explained in the judgement by the Supreme Court both the survivor and the respondent should be given fair, equal and just hearing. The IC members have the responsibility to look at complaints with a lens of balance of probabilities. Which means that they are equipped to take complainant testimony or indirect evidence as the basis of establishing sexually harassing behaviour. The Internal Committees is responsible to deliver its decision, taking into account the seriousness of the act and the mental/emotional trauma that the survivor has experienced. The IC’s role is to deter such acts and serve a pillar upholding equality, justice and fairness.