THE JUDICIAL employees association in Tamil Nadu is preparing to approach Madras High Court after the judge of a lower court in Erode served a memo on his office assistant, a 47-year-old Dalit woman, for “failure to wash the inner wear” at his house and “retorting in an arrogant tone” to his wife.
The memo, dated February 1 and signed by subordinate judge D Selvam of Sathyamangalam court, stated: “Please explain within 7 days why disciplinary action should not be initiated against you for your failure to wash the inner wear which were put for washing in the Sub-Judge’s house, and for throwing them away disgustingly, and when your attitude was questioned by the officer and his wife for retorting in an arrogant tone.”
On February 4, the woman responded in a note: “My humble explanation for the memo dated February 1, 2016, I humbly submit that I will guard against any lapses in the future and undertake to do my duties properly. I request that the disciplinary action against me may please be closed.”
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The Indian Express has examined the memo and the reply. T Senthil Kumar, general secretary of Tamil Nadu Judicial Employees Association, said they have verified the incident and will file a petition before the registrar general of Madras High Court and Justice S Nagamuthu, the High Court judge who heads administrative affairs of judicial employees in the state.
When contacted, judge Selvam said he cannot “react immediately” as the memo “was issued a month ago”. When the contents of the memo were read out to him, judge Selvam said: “I need to go back and check the file.” Asked if it was legal to use an office assistant for menial jobs at his home, he did not respond.
When contacted, Vasanthy confirmed the incident but refused to comment, citing her “vulnerable condition”. But reliable sources at the court said Vasanthy and other court staff continue to work at the judge’s house, doing menial jobs, including washing, cleaning and cooking.
Sources said that Vasanthy, who stays at Gobichettipalayam, about 27 km away from the judge’s residence, is the sole breadwinner of her family as her husband is unwell. She has two daughters, both students.
“Ever since the judge took charge here last May, she has been posted at his home along with one more staff. They work there till 7pm. That day (February 1), the judge’s wife asked her to wash her inner clothes, she refused. The same afternoon, she was served the memo,” said sources.
However, such instances are not new in Tamil Nadu, said retired Justice K Chandru of Madras High Court. For instance, J Cristal Babitha, a judicial magistrate at Valliyoor court near Tirunelveli suspended her office assistant, M Velmurugan, on November 21, 2012, citing his inability to cook fish curry.
Following the incident, the Valliyoor Bar Association sent a memorandum to the higher judiciary. A public interest writ petition was also filed in Madras High Court to revoke the suspension, which was dismissed because the matter was not brought to court by the employee.
“One of the earliest recorded cases known to us was an order issued by the then High Court registrar in 1937, asking judicial officers to not use Class IV employees for house duty,” said Justice Chandru.
Citing increasing cases of humiliation, a Class IV employees association, which was formed in 1980, passed a resolution asking the Chief Justice to “define the work of an employee sent to house duty”.
“After a prolonged delay, in 1992, the then Chief Justice Kanta Kumari Bhatnagar wrote on the file that ‘they (employees) are asked to perform such duties as may be assigned to them by the respective judicial officers’,” said Justice Chandru.
There have also been instances of the judiciary ruling in favour of assistants who have faced action for similar reasons.
The Madras High Court ruled in favour of an office assistant from Kanyakumari who moved a plea against his suspension by a judge for leaving without permission to buy tablets for his stomach ache. He was posted at the gate of the judge’s house.
The judge chargesheeted and suspended the employee, arguing that he should have taken permission to leave from “Amma” (his wife), in his absence. Quashing the chargesheet, the High Court pointed out that “Sir” has a post in the court but “Madam” didn’t.
A senior jurist also cited another case from Trichy in which four office assistants were suspended for refusing to do house duty. “When they dared to protest, they were asked to write an apology for the suspension to be revoked. And when they did so, they were dismissed from service with the apology letter used as an admission of crime,” he said.