The principle of Natural Justice is the concept of what is right and what is wrong. It is the concept that promotes fair and equal access to justice for everyone. It comprises three rules: Nemo judex in causa sua, Audi alteram partem, and that of a reasoned decision. Our area of focus in this blog is the second rule which means no person can be condemned or punished by the Court without having a fair opportunity of being heard.
Article 21 of our Constitution also enshrines the Right to be heard. Both parties must be given equal opportunity to present and defend their case for justice to be seen to be done. Unless both parties are aware of the nature of all the nations put up by the other party, it would be impossible for them to defend themselves. It is a well-established rule that both parties must have access to the evidence during any adjudication procedure, especially one involving basic rights. However, in certain situations, it becomes important, for reasons of information being sensitive in nature which may injure national security and public order that sealed-cover submissions are made in Courts. In these cases, the other party is deprived of the information being presented before the Court. The information is privy between the Court and the party asked to submit the information.
WHAT IS SEALED COVER JURISPRUDENCE?
Sealed cover jurisprudence is a concept wherein the information to be presented by one party is accepted by the Courts in a sealed cover and is to be examined only by the judges. It is a concept that goes against the principle of natural justice and the right to information. However, in certain cases, this practice is allowed for a variety of reasons which may include but are not limited to disclosure of sensitive information concerning national security or that concerning public interest or public order and morality, or where the risk of evidence tempering is directly and proximately involved which may or may not lead to a probable risk of hampering investigation or usually in matters involving a threat to privacy as a primary issue like in cases of in-camera proceedings.
Today, sealed covers are frequently used for a variety of papers, including counter-affidavits, status reports submitted by the investigating agency, and evidence.
RULES OR REGULATIONS COVERING SEALED COVER JURISPRUDENCE
Sealed cover enjoys legal identification but there are no specific and stringent guidelines for the usage of this particular practice. It derives its legality from Section 123 of the Indian Evidence Act, 1872 which is Public interest is given utmost priority. There may be some information in the official documents which are privileged as their publication or revelation before the public at large may be detrimental to public interest or service. Therefore, this act protects official, unpublished papers of state business and prohibits public officials from being forced to reveal them.
STANCE OF INDIAN COURTS
The practice of sealed covers is entirely discretionary. Indian Courts have had conflicting views at different times. In SP Gupta v. Union of India, the Supreme Court held that any such immunity claim must be allowed on the principle of public interest. Here, the Court had denied accepting the submissions in sealed covers. The Union of India was asked to provide the required documents after the Supreme Court of India rejected the government’s request for protection from disclosure. The petitioners asked for the disclosure of all correspondence about the promotion and appointment of judges between the Chief Justice of Delhi, the Minister of Justice, and the Chief Justice of India. According to the Court, a specific document about state affairs is not required to be disclosed if doing so would be against the public interest, and in this case, the appointment and appeal of judges fall under the purview of the public.
The jurisprudence about sealed cover practice has seen a peculiar evolution in modern-day practice this is evident from the precedents as “In the Alok Verma case of 2019, the Central Vigilance Commission was directed to file a document in a sealed cover to protect the sanctity and maintain public confidence in the Central Bureau of Investigation (‘CBI’), based on “peculiar facts” present in the case. It has become a noticeable trend to admit sealed case documents and reports involving high-profile companies at the Supreme Court, such as in Alok Verma. Manohar Lal Sharma v Narendra Damodardas Modi(2018), Sunil Bharti Mittal v. CBI (2015) and Ratan N. Tata v Union of India (2013), stating that the information might be leaked in the media, which would harm the reputation of the company and go against the privacy of the country.” However, in recent observations by two separate benches of the Supreme Court, hearing the case of Media One Channel and the Bihar Government, the sealed cover submissions by the Central Government were not allowed citing the reasons of transparency and accountability. Time and again, different observations have been made. Moreover, there is a need to develop a uniform system based on the reasoning of the method instead of the discretion of judges.
ISSUES AND CHALLENGES
Even though this setup – meant to serve as an exception – was incorporated into practice for a bona fide reason the practice has witnessed blatant misuse and abuse. There are various issues regarding the misuse of the sealed cover practice firstly it is against the principle of transparency and accountability – it stands against the idea of an open Court where decisions can be subjected to public scrutiny. Evidence must be shared with both parties to the dispute. But misuse of this practice deprives one of the parties of the right to defend themselves and the right t to know the nature of allegations being put up against them. Secondly, it reduces the scope of reasoning. One of the rules of natural justice is that the judges are supposed to lay down the reasoning for their decisions but this cannot be done when the decisions are based upon submissions made confidentially. Also, the state should not be given absinthe lute privilege to submit information in secrecy as the present system talks about hearings in open Court. Thirdly fair trial and adjudication which reads that every person has a right to fair trial and adjudication. Every person must have access to the reasoning behind his conviction. However, not providing access to documents submitted by the other party to the accused obstructs their passage to a fair trial. Lastly, it breaches fundamental rights and civil liberties as every person has a right to information derived under Article 19 (1) of the Constitution of India. This discretionary practice goes against our Fundamental Rights.
The ‘test of need standard’ was developed by The U.S. Supreme Court in U.S. v Nixon. Here, it was propounded that to pray for sealing, it is necessary to essentially fulfill two conditions the evidence must hold importance with respect to the central issue at hand and there must not exist any alternate source to access such evidence. Adoption of such a test by Indian Courts could help solve the issue of unfair use of the sealed cover jurisprudence to an extent. The Courts should use the proportionality criteria as the foundation for their decision-making and demonstrate how the threat was appropriate given the government’s decision to impose a complete ban.
There is a thin line between the Right to Privacy and the Right to Information. The balance needs to be maintained between both at all times and the line should not get blurred. An unfair view on one side would cause the line to get blurred which would malign the fountain of justice. The party requesting the seal must show a relationship between the purpose of the request and the type of document it intends to seal. The requirements for allowing the production of a sealed document are not met by merely declaring the general category of privilege without enough detail. Our Supreme Court has itself in P. Chidambaram vs Directorate of Enforcement that “though it is held that it would be open for the Court to peruse the documents, it would be against the concept of a fair trial if in every case the prosecution presents documents in a sealed cover and the findings on the same are recorded as if the offense is committed and the same is treated as having a bearing for denial or grant of bail”. Thus, it would be just and reasonable to say that such a practice must be used on a uniform basis and only to support the law and not to obstruct them.
Author(s) Name: Shreya Mittal (The National Law Institute University, Bhopal)
 Neha Rani, ‘Sealed Cover Jurisdiction is without a Rationale’ (The Leaflet, 30th May 2022) <https://theleaflet.in/sealed-cover-jurisprudence-is-without-a-rationale/> accessed 6th November 2022
 Namita Shetty, ‘Practice of Sealed Cover Doctrine: A Case of Constitutionalism of Convenience?’ (Legal Formats India, 30th November 2020) <https://legalformatsindia.com/practice-of-sealed-cover-doctrine-a-case-of-constitutionalism-of-convenience/> accessed 6th November 2022
 Indian Evidence Act,1872, s 123
 SP Gupta v Union of India (1982) (2) SCR 365
 Alok Verma v Union of India (2019) Writ Petition (Civil) No. 1309 with 1315/2018
 Manohar Lal Sharma v Narendra Damodardas Modi (2018) SCC OnLine SC 2807
 Sunil Bharti Mittal v CBI (2015) AIR SC 923
Ratan N. Tata v Union of India (2013) (13) SCALE 201
 Constitution of India 1950,Article 19(1)
U.S. v Nixon (1974) 418 U.S. 683
 P. Chidambaram v Directorate of Enforcement (2019) Criminal Appeal No. 1340/2019