In the first ever complete "gag order", the Bombay High Court has issued a series of stringent guidelines for hearing, dealing, and reporting on cases pertaining to the Prevention of Sexual Harassment of Women at the Workplace Act, 2013.
As per the order by Justice G.S. Patel, all such matters shall be heard either "in camera" or in the judge's chambers, orders cannot be passed in open court, or uploaded on the high court's official website, and the media has been prohibited from reporting the proceedings or the verdicts without the court's permission.
Justice Patel's detailed order - which make POSH cases virtually at par with the existing guidelines for rape cases - states that violation of the same or publishing the concerned party's names or other details, even if in the public domain, would be treated as contempt of court. He observed that since there are no set guidelines for such matters, his initial order would set a working protocol for the future orders, hearings, case file management, and would be revised or modified, as needed.
These 'minimum guidelines' issued now deal with the format of filing orders in POSH cases, the filing protocols, grant of access by the registry, hearings, directions to the certified copy department, public access, breach, etc.
"Both sides and all parties and advocates, as also witnesses, are forbidden from disclosing the 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," the court said on the media disclosure part.
The judge added that it was imperative to protect the identities of the parties from disclosure, even accidental disclosure in such proceedings, in the interests of both sides, and the endeavour would be to "anonymise the identities of the parties".
The orders came in a hearing of a POSH case involving a major blue-chip company and its woman staffer - who was represented by advocate Abha Singh. When contacted, lawyer flatly declined comments citing the high court guidelines.
Among the highlights are parties names shall be replaced with "A v B", etc, the order will mention them as only 'Plaintiff, Defendent No. 1, etc', no reference to any 'personally identifiable information (PII) like email, mobile or phone numbers, addresses, etc, and no witness names and addresses shall be mentioned.
All orders/judgements shall be delivered in private, not in open court but only in the judge's chambers or in camera, with online or hybrid facility not allowed, in the presence of the litigants and lawyers and others including most of the court staff to leave the court.
"Orders can't be published without court's direction, and it any order is to be released into public domain, this will require a specific order of the court. This will be on the condition that only the fully anonymised version of the order of judgement is let into the public domain for publication," said Justice Patel.
Both sides, all parties and advocates, and witnesses, are forbidden from disclosing the 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, as per the guidelines.
There are strict restrictions barring anyone other than the Advocate-on-Record to inspect or copy any filings/orders, the entire record will be kept sealed and not handed over to anybody without the court's order, witness depositions would be strictly not uploaded under any circumstances, and so on.
Any breaches of the guidelines by all persons, including the media would invite contempt of court proceedings, as per Justice Patel's order.