No more asking sexual offence survivor to tie Rakhi or get married to the accused; Supreme Court calls for gender sensitisation of judges and lawyers [Read Directions]

Supreme Court: In a plea concerning imposition of certain conditions in a case involving a sexual offence against a woman, at any stage of judicial proceedings, that trivialize the trauma undergone by survivors and adversely affect their dignity, the bench of AM Khanwilkar and S. Ravindra Bhat*, JJ has held that the use of reasoning/language which diminishes the offence and tends to trivialize the survivor, is especially to be avoided under all circumstances.

Reminding the courts of their duty, the Court said,

“The role of all courts is to make sure that the survivor can rely on their impartiality and neutrality, at every stage in a criminal proceeding, where she is the survivor and an aggrieved party. Even an indirect undermining of this responsibility cast upon the court, by permitting discursive formations on behalf of the accused, that seek to diminish his agency, or underplay his role as an active participant (or perpetrator) of the crime, could in many cases, shake the confidence of the rape survivor (or accuser of the crime) in the impartiality of the court.”

On Judicial Stereotyping

  • Judges can play a significant role in ridding the justice system of harmful stereotypes. They have an important responsibility to base their decisions on law and facts in evidence, and not engage in gender stereotyping. This requires judges to identify gender stereotyping, and identify how the application, enforcement or perpetuation of these stereotypes discriminates against women or denies them equal access to justice. Stereotyping might compromise the impartiality of a judge’s decision and affect his or her views about witness credibility or the culpability of the accused person.
  • The challenges Indian women face are formidable: they include a misogynistic society with entrenched cultural values and beliefs, bias (often sub-conscious) about the stereotypical role of women, social and political structures that are heavily malecentric, most often legal enforcement structures that either cannot cope with, or are unwilling to take strict and timely measures. Therefore, reinforcement of this stereotype, in court utterances or orders, through considerations which are extraneous to the case, would impact fairness.
  • ‘Judicial stereotyping’ refers to the practice of judges ascribing to an individual specific attributes, characteristics or roles by reason only of her or his membership in a particular social group (e.g. women). It is used, also, to refer to the practice of judges perpetuating harmful stereotypes through their failure to challenge them, for example by lower courts or parties to legal proceedings.31 Stereotyping excludes any individualized consideration of, or investigation into, a person’s actual circumstances and their needs or abilities.
  • The stereotype of the ideal sexual assault victim disqualifies several accounts of lived experiences of sexual assault. Rape myths undermine the credibility of those women who are seen to deviate too far from stereotyped notions of chastity, resistance to rape, having visible physical injuries, behaving a certain way, reporting the offence immediately, etc.

On Stereotype opinions that should be avoided

Courts should desist from expressing any stereotype opinion, in words spoken during proceedings, or in the course of a judicial order. Some of the instances are:

  • that the survivor had in the past consented to such or similar acts or
  • that she behaved promiscuously, or by her acts or clothing, provoked the alleged action of the accused,
  • that she behaved in a manner unbecoming of chaste or “Indian” women, or that she had called upon the situation by her behavior, etc.
  • women are physically weak and need protection;
  • women are incapable of or cannot take decisions on their own;
  • men are the “head” of the household and should take all the decisions relating to family;
  • women should be submissive and obedient according to our culture;
  • “good” women are sexually chaste;
  • motherhood is the duty and role of every woman, and assumptions to the effect that she wants to be a mother;
  • women should be the ones in charge of their children, their upbringing and care;
  • being alone at night or wearing certain clothes make women responsible for being attacked;
  • a woman consuming alcohol, smoking, etc. may justify unwelcome advances by men or “has asked for it”;
  • women are emotional and often overreact or dramatize events, hence it is necessary to corroborate their testimony;
  • testimonial evidence provided by women who are sexually active may be suspected when assessing “consent” in sexual offence cases; and
  • lack of evidence of physical harm in sexual offence case leads to an inference of consent by the woman.

The Court, however, clarified that these instances are only illustrations of an attitude which should never enter judicial verdicts or orders or be considered relevant while making a judicial decision; they cannot be reasons for granting bail or other such relief.

On the conditions that shouldn’t be imposed

Similarly, imposing conditions that implicitly tend to condone or diminish the harm caused by the accused and have the effect of potentially exposing the survivor to secondary trauma are forbidden, such as

  • mandating mediation processes in non-compoundable offences,
  • mandating as part of bail conditions, community service (in a manner of speaking with the so-called reformative approach towards the perpetrator of sexual offence) or
  • requiring tendering of apology once or repeatedly, or in any manner getting or being in touch with the survivor.

“The law does not permit or countenance such conduct, where the survivor can potentially be traumatized many times over or be led into some kind of non-voluntary acceptance, or be compelled by the circumstances to accept and condone behavior what is a serious offence.”

However, the Court made clear that the instances spelt out in the judgment are only illustrations; the idea is that the greatest extent of sensitivity is to be displayed in the judicial approach, language and reasoning adopted by the judge.

“Even a solitary instance of such order or utterance in court, reflects adversely on the entire judicial system of the country, undermining the guarantee to fair justice to all, and especially to victims of sexual violence (of any kind from the most aggravated to the so-called minor offences).”

Directions to be considered while granting bail in sexual offences

(a) Bail conditions should not mandate, require or permit contact between the accused and the victim. Such conditions should seek to protect the complainant from any further harassment by the accused;

(b) Where circumstances exist for the court to believe that there might be a potential threat of harassment of the victim, or upon apprehension expressed, after calling for reports from the police, the nature of protection shall be separately considered and appropriate order made, in addition to a direction to the accused not to make any contact with the victim;

(c) In all cases where bail is granted, the complainant should immediately be informed that the accused has been granted bail and copy of the bail order made over to him/her within two days;

(d) Bail conditions and orders should avoid reflecting stereotypical or patriarchal notions about women and their place in society, and must strictly be in accordance with the requirements of the Cr. PC. In other words, discussion about the dress, behavior, or past “conduct” or “morals” of the prosecutrix, should not enter the verdict granting bail;

(e) The courts while adjudicating cases involving gender related crimes, should not suggest or entertain any notions (or encourage any steps) towards compromises between the prosecutrix and the accused to get married, suggest or mandate mediation between the accused and the survivor, or any form of compromise as it is beyond their powers and jurisdiction;

(f) Sensitivity should be displayed at all times by judges, who should ensure that there is no traumatization of the prosecutrix, during the proceedings, or anything said during the arguments, and

(g) Judges especially should not use any words, spoken or written, that would undermine or shake the confidence of the survivor in the fairness or impartiality of the court.

Directions on training and sensitization of judges and lawyers

  1. A module on gender sensitization be included, as part of the foundational training of every judge. This module must,
    • aim at imparting techniques for judges to be more sensitive in hearing and deciding cases of sexual assault, and eliminating entrenched social bias, especially misogyny.
    • should emphasize the prominent role that judges are expected to play in society, as role models and thought leaders, in promoting equality and ensuring fairness, safety and security to all women who allege the perpetration of sexual offences against them.
    • the use of language and appropriate words and phrases should be emphasized as part of this training.
  1. The National Judicial Academy should devise, speedily, the necessary inputs which have to be made part of the training of young judges, as well as form part of judges’ continuing education with respect to gender sensitization, with adequate awareness programs regarding stereotyping and unconscious biases that can creep into judicial reasoning. The syllabi and content of such courses shall be framed after necessary consultation with sociologists and teachers in psychology, gender studies or other relevant fields, preferably within three months. The course should emphasize upon the relevant factors to be considered, and importantly, what should be avoided during court hearings and never enter judicial reasoning. Public Prosecutors and Standing Counsel too should undergo mandatory training in this regard. The training program, its content and duration shall be developed by the National Judicial Academy, in consultation with State academies. The course should contain topics such as appropriate court-examination and conduct and what is to be avoided.
  2. Bar Council of India (BCI) should consult subject experts and circulate a paper for discussion with law faculties and colleges/universities in regard to courses that should be taught at the undergraduate level, in the LL.B program. The BCI shall also require topics on sexual offences and gender sensitization to be mandatorily included in the syllabus for the All India Bar Examination.
  3. Each High Court should, with the help of relevant experts, formulate a module on judicial sensitivity to sexual offences, to be tested in the Judicial Services Examination.

[Aparna Bhat v. State of Madhya Pradesh, 2021 SCC OnLine SC 230, decided on 18.03.2021]


*Judgment by: Justice S. Ravindra Bhat

Know Thy Judge| Justice S. Ravindra Bhat

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