Sealed cover jurisprudence

Sealed cover jurisprudence

  • Providing information to judges in a sealed envelope by the government is called the practice of "sealed covered jurisprudence".
  • In such a practice, information is provided to one party in the case.

Observation of the chief justice of India on sealed covered jurisprudence-

  • Justice Chandrachud observed, "We will not accept the sealed covered suggestion by the executive because we want to maintain full transparency, and if we accept suggestions in a sealed cover, it is like we have kept it away from the other side as people will think it is a government-appointed committee. So we will appoint the committee and appoint members on our own."

  • Earlier, while hearing snooping issue on the use of pegasus software, the supreme court, by turning down information in a sealed cover, observed that the government could not expect a 'free pass' every time spectre national security is raised in the court.

The legal sanction for this practice

  • Rule 7 of Order XIII of the supreme court rules- the chief justice can direct certain documents, which can be in the form of letters, extracts or copies in sealed covers that are confidential and whose publication is not warranted. In a case, the chief justice can withhold sharing such information or its publication from any person, including the opposite party.

  • Section 123 of the Indian evidence act- evidence as to affairs of state- no one shall be permitted to give any evidence derived from unpublished official records relating to any affairs of state, except with the permission of the officer at the head of the department concerned, who shall give or withhold such permission as he thinks fit.

Recent examples of sealed-covered jurisprudence

  • Media- one case - Ministry of Information and Broadcasting refused (I & B) refused to renew the license of media one. The Ministry of I&B, in a sealed envelope, provided the judges of Kerala high court with the reason for not renewing the license of media one. Judges were satisfied that the issue of national security did exist.

  • Rafale aircraft case- a bench headed by chief justice Ranjan Gogoi had asked the central government to submit deals, decision making and pricing details in a sealed cover.

  • Bhima Koregaon- the supreme court refused to put a stay on the arrest of activists held in the Bhima- Koregaon case by relying on "evidence" submitted by the Maharashtra police in a sealed envelope. The police had stated that this information could not be disclosed to the accused as it would impede ongoing investigations.

  • National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam: The Supreme Court ordered the NRC coordinator to produce periodic reports under a sealed cover that neither the petitioners nor the government could see.

Recent supreme court observations against sealed envelopes reflect a turnaround by the judiciary.

  • INX Media- supreme court while granting bail to JusticeP. Chidambaram criticized Delhi high court decision to merely rely on arguments submitted by the enforcement directorate in a sealed cover as it violated the principle of a fair trial. 

  • Criminal appeal filed against Bihar government- chief justice of India, Justice N.V. Ramana, disapproved of admitting information in a sealed cover by the Bihar government.

  • Supreme court in pegasus issue- "states do not get a free pass every time a spectre of 'national security' is raised" and that "national security cannot be the bugbear that the judiciary shies away from, by virtue of its mere mentioning".

  • Muzzafarpur case- similarly, the supreme court admonished the Bihar government for attempting to give information in a sealed cover in the Muzaffarpur shelter case.

Arguments in favour of Sealed Cover Jurisprudence

  • Our Supreme Court now has the capacity to accept case information in sealed envelopes, which increases its authority.

  • This is carried out in cases involving measures that might significantly impact the country's economy or in very delicate circumstances like defence deals.

  • Sealed envelopes are crucial and must always be used for national security reasons.

  • Courts have in-camera procedures, even in private cases. This prevents situations involving someone's private life from being included in court records.

  • This occasionally necessitates the sealed cover doctrine.

 Issues Related to Sealed Cover Jurisprudence

  • Lack of Transparency:
    • As the evidence or arguments offered in the sealed cover are not available to the public or other parties, sealed cover jurisprudence can reduce transparency and accountability in the legal process.
    • It opposes the notion of an open court where the general public can review judgments.

  • Disparate Access: Because those with access to the information included in the sealed cover may have an advantage over those without, applying sealed cover jurisprudence might lead to an uneven playing field.

  • Limited Opportunity to Respond: The parties who are not privy to the information included in the sealed cover could not have the chance to reply to or contest the facts or claims made therein, which can impair their capacity to argue their case correctly.

  • Risk of Abuse: Parties can abuse sealed cover jurisprudence by hiding material that is not confidential or by using it to their advantage during the judicial procedure.

  • Interference with Fair Trial: Because the parties might have access to only some of the pertinent information or arguments are taken into account throughout the decision-making process, the use of sealed cover jurisprudence can interfere with the right to a fair trial.

  • Arbitrary Nature: Instead of a standard procedure, sealed covers depend on the individual judges' need to support a position in a given case. This renders the exercise haphazard and random.

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