ERODE: In an instance that laid bare the allegedly widespread abuse of official facilities, a sub judge in Erode issued a memo to a woman court staff seeking explanation for not washing undergarments at his residence. The month-old memo – and the reply by the hapless office assistant tendered – came out in public on Thursday, triggering a controversy.
“You did not properly wash the clothes given to you in the sub judge's house. Especially, you felt revulsion to wash underwear garments and threw away them. Moreover, you argued with the judge and his wife when they questioned you about this,” noted the memo issued to Sathyamangalam sub-court office assistant S Vasanthi dated February 1, 2016, seeking an explanation in seven days why disciplinary action should not be taken against her for the behaviour.
|- Court Staff Union Protest Memo, Wants Rules Changed|
Speaking to Express, Vasanthi (47) acknowledged that the memo was indeed issued to her. The judge’s wife even came to the court to pick up a quarrel with her, Vasanthi said. “The next day, I went to meet the district judge at his residence in Erode. As he was not available, I showed the memo to his PA, who sought to calm me down,” she said.
Despite the assurance by the district judge's PA, she submitted a letter on February 4 expressing regret for her actions to the sub judge. “I humbly submit to the lordship that I will ensure that such complaints will not arise against me in the future. Hence, I humbly request you to spare me from any action,” read the reply. Following this, the judge himself told her to let it be and work as usual without worrying about his wife.
“Since then, I have been going to their house and work as usual without engaging in any conversation with his wife,” added Vasanthi. A Class 10 pass out, who was appointed nearly nine years ago, she has two married daughters and has to look after her ailing husband.
While Vasanthi maintained that this incident was in the past for her and sought to downplay the issue as something that was long gone, this understandably triggered a controversy after the memo and the response came to the public sphere.
The Tamil Nadu Judicial Employees Association leaders said they were planning an agitation to protest such exploitation and harassment of court staff. “There is a government order against using staff for personal work. When we sought details through several RTI petitions, the reply we received claimed there was no orderly system in the judiciary. But in reality, many workers all over the State have been asked to attend to the domestic works at the judges’ residence,” alleged association president P Karunakaran.
Shocking as it is, this episode is, however, not unusual in judiciary and police, noted former judge of the Madras High Court, Justice K Chandru, who said he also recently came to know about the memo issued to the woman staff by the sub judge.
The system of engaging staff for personal work existed during the British rule, but orders issued in 1937 and also after Independence barred this practice. However, it remains even now, he added, “Two years ago, a judge issued a memo for not cooking fish curry. In another case, when a staff went out to buy medicine for himself, a judge in Kanyakumari asked why he failed to inform his wife. The judge even issued a memo which the High Court later cancelled,” recalled Justice Chandru.
The lower level staff, he noted, had little options but to fall in line. When some decided not to do domestic work, they were suspended till they apologised. There were even cases of dismissals. There is latent casteism as well, he added. There were two cases of staff being removed from domestic work after learning that they were from scheduled castes. Another instance of this was appointing staff belonging to the same castes as the judges for domestic work, he said.
In 1980, the judicial employees union adopted a resolution against such harassment and he filed a suit in the HC against the practice. But, many did not endorse his views. The court held that ‘the staff would do such work as may be entrusted by the respective judicial officers’. “In some cases, the staff are treated as bonded labour,” Justice Chandru added.
Pointing out that the woman staff being issued the memo is a violation of basic right, PUCL State secretary advocate S Balamurugan said the higher judiciary should take note of this suo motu and should take steps to put an end to it completely.
Reacting to the issue, a member of the court staff union in Chennai said, " Role of office assistants are restricted to office work. But, when they are posted for duty at the residences of Judges and magistrates, they are used for buying groceries, washing clothes and similar menial jobs."
"There is no duty mentioned in particular. They do whatever the Judges say," the member said adding, " This has been happening for ages and there have been cases where such assistants have been pushed to the point of attempting suicide due to the humiliation."