Sealed Cover Jurisprudence
- The Chief Justice of India D.Y. Chandrachud firmly refused the ‘suggestions’ offered by the government in a sealed cover on the formation of a proposed committee to enquire into the Hindenburg report on the Adani Group.
- This signals the Supreme Court’s acute awareness of how ‘sealed cover jurisprudence’ has begun to threaten the very credibility of the judicial institution.
- The decision of the three-judge Bench led by the CJI to keep the government’s sealed cover at a distance and do “its own thinking”, made it evident that the dialogue on sealed covers was no longer an academic discourse on how to balance the right to know and the need to protect national security.
What is ‘Sealed Cover Jurisprudence’?
- The Supreme Court and lower courts may ask for and accept sensitive and confidential information from government agencies or other persons in ‘sealed covers’.
- These envelopes can be accessed only by Judges. The contents of sealed covers in court proceedings are inaccessible to the other parties in the case.
- The practice of Judges asking for evidence in sealed covers and making decisions based on such evidence is known as sealed cover jurisprudence.
Background of sealed cover jurisprudence :
- The origins of sealed cover jurisprudence can be traced to service or administrative cases.
- Official service records and promotion assessments of individual personnel were received in sealed cover in order to avoid harm to the reputation of officers.
- The court continues to receive confidential documents in sexual assault cases to protect the identity of survivors.
- However, recent times have seen the government produce myriad documents, ranging from status reports to ‘notes’, alleged evidence collected during investigation into terror and money-laundering cases.
Various sealed cover cases :
Sealed cover documents have been received by the apex court in cases such as:
- the Rafale jets’ purchase deal,
- Assam National Register of Citizens case,
- Ayodhya title dispute,
- Gujarat Police ‘fake’ encounter case,
- Narendra Modi biopic release case,
- in the sexual harassment case concerning then Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi,
- the electoral bonds case, Bhima Koregaon case and
- the anticipatory bail plea for former union finance minister P. Chidambaram.
- In these cases, sealed cover had risen to the status of ‘due procedure’.
Supreme court rules on sealed cover jurisprudence :
- Rule 7 of Order XIII of the Supreme Court Rules, 2013 provides that the Chief Justice or the court can, through a judicial order, direct any document to be kept confidential in a sealed cover if publication of the records is “considered to be not in the interest of the public”.
- Section 123 of the Evidence Act of 1872 provides that the government should give prior permission to a person who wants to give evidence “derived from unpublished official records relating to any affairs of state”.
- Sealed covers are typically used when the information submitted by government agencies or by other persons is so sensitive that the public must not learn about it.
- In these situations, the Court requests information in sealed covers to ensure ‘complete justice’.
- For example, sealed covers are to be used when the information in a case is confidential and sensitive, or when the information is collected as part of an ongoing investigation.
- This is to ensure that the investigation is not affected and that there is no adverse impact on the party submitting the information.
Issues with the sealed cover jurisprudence :
- Sealed cover jurisprudence may erode transparency, militating not just against citizens’ access to information about the proceedings, but also the other party’s ability to understand all the facts of the case.
- Some have argued that this violates the principles of natural justice.
- Concerns have arisen about the Court’s use of sealed cover jurisprudence in fundamental rights and civil liberties cases, such as in the arrests of the five activists in the Bhima Koregaon case.
SOURCE : THE HINDU
Syllabus : GS2; Indian Polity and Governance