criminal law
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This article is written by Sonia Balhara from Sushant University, Gurgaon. This article talks about the sealed cover method and the decision taken by the Courts on this method.

Introduction

First of all, it is important to distinguish the different ways in which the Supreme Court has shifted the closed covering function. It is not always the case that when a cover is used, the court does not disclose the contents of the sealed cover to another person. The court also never confirmed its position on the use of closed cover. In most cases, it has been stated in the document that was sent to the court with the sealed cover but after that, there is no record of that document; whether it relied on the court or how those documents affected the trial no such information exists. It has been also repeatedly reported that the advice itself calls for the submission of documents on the sealed cover.

A difference must also be formed within the act of demanding privilege over records and the sealed cover practice we are dealing with. Under Section 123 of the Indian Evidence Act, certain documents are not allowed to be presented in the court; the content of such records is vested and hence, they are barred from being put on the document. In this article we are going to deal with how sealed cover emerged and what was the decision of the court on the use of sealed cover.  

Origin

In the early years of the Supreme Court, the Court followed a sealed cover to protect the evidence because the non-stamping of the fundamentals naturally suggests that the recording disputes. In some of the objectives, we found that the court is using a sealed cover method in cases related to bids and tenders. 

That changed in 1972, in the case of Unichem Laboratories v. Workers, private company statements presented in court with a closed cover; there is a dispute in the document about their presentation or if the court itself asked them for a cover, but it is important that the court gives reasons why the documents could not be made public; the court said the statements were removed from the decision, could not be made public. This should be considered because the court stipulates that the document cannot be made public as they are presented with the sealed cover- the sealed cover, here, serves that there may have been cases in the past when the closed cover was returned to counsel judges but the same written record does not exist, as those cases were not found in judgments.

Wages of fire

After 2000, the sealed cover opened its own space to seek investigation reports, court-ordered investigation reports, the governor’s report, status reports, and steps taken in the investigation. The distribution of status reports has increased dramatically in the last four years (since 2016), even as the name has not been mentioned before this time. Central Vigilance Commission (CVC) reports, Special Investigation Teams (SIT) reports, case diaries, Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) investigation reports, accounts, promotional lists, all fall under the sealed cover in this section. This work comes not only from the end of the court but also from the advice, which they urge to submit documents to the sealed cover and the court agrees to accept it.

In the case of Subramaniam Swamy v. Arun Shourie, the defendant prayed that seeing the seriousness of the facts, he would choose to refuse to state those facts in an affidavit but would like to state them in the form of a signed statement on the cover of the Court’s closure, which could be treated as an integral part of the affidavit. The Court, not under the procedure for admitting that. The Defendant was granted the freedom to remove the sealed cover in the court. The defendant has been allowed to file another affidavit. There are no clauses recorded by a learned judge as to why the procedure was not an acceptable procedure or other information related to the delivery of counsel. However, this case is the only case that investigators can find when the court rejected the offer of a sealed cover.

The widespread use of closed lids, however, has been noted in the case of Ratan N. Tata v. Union of India. There was a long list including a copy of the keys and were produced before the court for the next hearing. At the next hearing, there was no mention of the sealed cover. However, the Additional Solicitor General of India (ASG) moved another sealed cover containing the reports of the Ministerial Committee. The sealed cover was opened in court, reopened by the king of the court and returned to counsel. Thereafter, a sealed envelope containing the transcripts of all the tapes was sent to the court; in other hearings, the results of the examination of the tapes allegedly passed to the court with a closed cover. The court opened the same and used them. Finally, the report filed by the CBI was presented on the cover where the court ordered that the register be kept must be in the same format and not to be open without consent of the court. 

There have been many cases where the court has given reasons for returning to the closed page. In Board of Control for Cricket in India v. Cricket Assn. of Bihar, the Supreme Court had accepted a statement of Justice Mudgal’s committee on why the report was submitted in a sealed cover:  specifically, that they were only accusations and were not organized and, hence, the report was being presented in a sealed cover so on not disgrace the status of any innocent person. The court went through the report and said that the allegations within the report presented in a sealed cover required investigations, as the allegations were relevant to the subject matter of the Public Interest Litigation (PIL). 

In SEBI v. Sahara India Real Estate Corporation, the Supreme Court that the press clippings have been taken on record but should be kept in an exceedingly sealed cover to keep up confidentiality about the proposed transactions.

In the Alok Kumar Verma vs Union Of India (Alok Verma case), the court declared that we further make it clear that the present order demanding to furnish the statement of the CVC in a sealed cover to the academic council for the applicant is being made in the unique facts of the case and as a one time action. And, the above course of action has been granted importance by the court keeping in mind the need to maintain the virtue of the organization of the CBI and public belief in the said Institution.  

In the case of Mercantile Bank of India Ltd. v. The Central Bank of India Ltd. a firm of merchants committed a series of fraud and until it came to the notice of the authorities, enjoyed high reputations within the State of Madras. This firm was known for groundnuts-merchant and exporters. Both the plaintiff and defendant financed the consignments of groundnuts purchased and each received a railway receipt in respect of their consignment. The merchants wanted a loan therefore what they did was, initially pledged it to the Mercantile Bank. The plaintiff, the Central Bank had filed a suit for the conversion of the products against Mercantile Bank. It had been held that there was no negligence as the Central Bank didn’t owe an obligation to the  Mercantile Bank and then the Central Bank wasn’t stopped from having a previous title as “pledgees’.

Previous instances of sealed cover method by the Supreme Court

The Supreme Court assumes power for the sealed cover action from the Supreme Court rules. Rule 14 Chapter XX of the Supreme Court Rules grants: Notwithstanding anything can be carried during this order, no party or person shall be permitted as of right to get prints of or quotes from any moments, record or document of any intimate nature or any document sent, filed or created, which the attorney or the Court orders to stay in sealed cover or considers to be of an intimate nature of the general statement of which is taken into account to not be within the matter of the public, except under and following an order specifically made by the judge or by the Court.

As per Article 145 of the Indian Constitution, the Supreme Court rules do not exist independently and are subject to other laws in effect. Section 327 of CrPC also grants for delaying publication of several documents. However, Section 327 lists the cases within which publication is withheld. 

  • First, it stops access to the court in the court in cases the directing judge thinks fit.
  • Second, it gives an In-camera trial for assaults under Section 376 of the Indian Penal Code.
  • Third, it prohibits the publication of any matter in respect to in-camera proceedings only, this can be logical because the concept of in-camera trials is formed as an exception to the open justice principle and so, the publication is restricted only in such circumstances. 

The above rule on the opposite hand restricts publication whenever the court deems fit. This position stands in contrast to Section 327. The said rule also stands in opposition to Section 123 of the Indian Evidence Act. Section 123 has got to be read with Section 162 which provides for the act of claiming privileges over a confidential document by the state. Whenever privilege is claimed on any document, such documents are until set as the question of privilege, kept in an exceedingly sealed cover. However, if the privilege isn’t claimed on evidence under Section 123, then no backing in law exists to supply for documents in an exceedingly sealed cover. Additionally to Section 327 of CrPC, the rule now acts as an exception to the current section too.

The sealed cover doctrine gained prominence during the appointment of former Indian Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi. In 2018, Chief Justice Gogoi asked former Assam National Register of Citizens (NRC) coordinator Prateek Hajela to submit a full report on the people included in the draft document on the sealed cover including the cases where they refuse to discuss the contents of the sealed cover with Attorney General K.K. Venugopal. 

In the Manohar Lal Sharma vs Narendra Damodardas Modi (Rafale case) again, Chief Justice Gogoi asked the government to provide details on the price of the jerseys. Similarly, in the case where former CBI director Alok Kumar Verma and his manager Rakesh Asthana had been announcing allegations of corruption against each other, Gogoi asked the Central Vigilance Commission to submit its report with sealed cover. 

                    

Criticism against sealed cover method

Transparency and answerability are the basis of Indian jurisdiction. In such a case, keeping one side of the lawyers from robbing the information sent to the judges which ignore the constitutional principles followed by the courts. Also, the sealed cover relies on individual judges looking to add a point to a particular case rather than performing a standard procedure. This makes the practice contradictory. In the case of Rafale, the main issue was the price of the jets and that the details were included in the closed cover. This is also said to be unconstitutional, especially since applicants could not be provided with a copy of those documents. The Supreme Court, however, dismissed any need for an investigation into it.

Conclusion

The court’s procedure over the years has been polite; from protection, confidentiality, and mystery, the sealed cover has reached these provinces. Infantilization through this practice has been stated earlier, but we think that this has enough to do with preference as well. The exponential rise in the sealed cover use by the court in recent years is suggestive of the fact that the apex court is gradually increasing constitutionalism of convenience. In a history of more than 68 years and over 402 cases, the Supreme Court has equipped logic in only the above cases. This speaks a lot of the unwanted side of this exercise and how liberally it is practised without providing any respect to reasons. It is important to reemphasize that the Supreme Court does not issue the records of the hearing, it does not live-stream the process (not yet), does not publish drafted materials and requires an advocate stamp on a form to physically obtain its premises; with such requirements on open justice.

References 


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