ISLAMABAD - The Supreme Court on Wednesday sought assurance from federal and provincial governments that the law, if amended, against harassment of women at the workplace should not be diluted and weakened.

The top court also directed the federal and provincial governments to submit the details of complaints regarding harassment of women at workplaces along with replies on the interpretation of law regarding the issue.

The top court while adjourning the hearing for the first week of March observed that this case needs constitutional interpretation.

A three-judge bench headed by Sheikh Azmat Saeed cautioned the governments not to weaken the law, pertaining to harassment of women at workplace, while expressing the concern over ‘whispers to dilute the law’.

“There are whispers of diluting the law. We want assurance in the court that such law should not be weakened instead it should be improved,” said Justice Saeed.

He made these observations during the hearing of a suo motu action against former Ombudsperson Yasmeen Abbasi, who had issued warrants for arrest against the then Lahore High Court (LHC) Justice Syed Mansoor Ali Shah.

The hearing of the case was resumed after almost two years and Justice Shah has been elevated as a judge of Supreme Court.

At the outset of the hearing, Justice Saeed questioned the law officers about the law on the issue and its likely amendment. He emphasised on improving the law if some amendments are made to it.

He further observed that talking about the harassment cases is considered to be a taboo in society, adding everyone has to create the environment where harassment complaints can conveniently be filed and women can easily come forward against incidents of harassment at workplaces. “This is a critical case. You should be ashamed if you cannot protect women,” said Justice Saeed while addressing the law officers. 

Kashmala Tariq, the Federal Ombudsperson for Protection against Harassment of Women at Workplace, present during the proceedings informed the bench that there are zero complaints of harassment in Sindh.

However, Justice Saeed negating her remarked that absence of complaints does not mean the issue of harassment in Sindh does not exist.

He observed that a mechanism should be developed which could make it easier for women to lodge complaints.

On likely amendments, Additional Attorney General (AAG) Sajid Ilyas Bhatti informed the bench that it is difficult at this stage, to state anything regarding assurance that law will not be diluted, when there is nothing finalized regarding amendment.

However, Additional Advocate General Punjab Qasim Chohan said that he is in position to undertake that the law will not be weakened.

Additional AdvocateGeneral Sindh Barrister Shabbir Shah argued before the bench that there must be a balancing strike in order to stop malicious complaints of harassments.

Justice Saeed, however, made it clear that this Court will not wait till the amendments adding that the Court will be disturbed and it does not expect from governments to dilute the law.

Later outside the court room, Ombudsperson Kashmala Tariq revealed that 80 percent of the harassment complaints are being received by the persons working in government sectors. When questioned as to what is mechanism to determine the bonafide of harassment complaint, she responded that there is a complete procedure to check the veracity of complaint.

She added that notices are issued to parties and after examining the statements of parties the witnesses are summoned.

Regarding mechanism, she further said that cross examination takes place adding that when the forum considers that a complaint is useless and does not constitute the harassment case then the forum tries to mediate between the parties. She ruled out the perception that the forum can be abused by women against men.

On May 11, 2016, the then Chief Justice Anwar Zaheer Jamali took Suo Moto action on press clipping of a newspaper containing the story captioned as “Ombudsperson issues warrant for judge a day after apology”.

The dispute between then LHC judge and then federal ombudsperson unearthed after Advocate Sumera Fazil Khan filed application against Advocate Salim Javed Baig and his son Advocate Khurram Baig before ombudsperson.

The said LHC judge, on the application of accused, had stayed the proceedings of ombudsperson regarding complaint of Sumera but ombudsperson ignored the orders of LHC.

Justice Shah had initiated contempt proceedings against the ombudsperson with issuance of her arrest warrant after she refused to appear before the court.

The ombudsperson not only ignored the high court’s orders but also resorted to exercising her powers beyond the Constitution as she issued contempt notice to the judge accusing him of committing contempt of the office of the federal ombudsperson.

While hearing the suo motu in 2016, the top court had clubbed the petition wherein jurisdiction of the courts was challenged.