In recent years, the use of sealed cover jurisprudence has been a controversial practice in the Indian legal system. Sealed cover jurisprudence refers to the practice of presenting evidence or documents in a sealed cover to the court, which is not shown to the other party or their counsel. This practice has been employed by the Supreme Court and sometimes lower courts in India in cases involving sensitive or confidential information, such as the Rafale jets’ purchase deal, the Ayodhya temple-mosque dispute, and the sexual harassment case concerning then Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi, among others. While a specific law does not define the doctrine of sealed cover, the Supreme Court derives its power to use it from Rule 7 of Order XIII of the Supreme Court Rules and Section 123 of the Indian Evidence Act of 1872.
Its use in courts has raised concerns about its impact on the right to information and freedom of expression, which are fundamental rights guaranteed by the Indian Constitution. These rights are considered essential for a democratic society and are recognized as vital for promoting transparency, accountability, and informed decision-making. However, its use can potentially curtail these rights, as it prevents access to information that is crucial for a fair and just judicial process.
CRITICISMS OF THE SEALED COVER JURISPRUDENCE
One of the main criticisms of sealed cover jurisprudence is that it can subvert the Right to Information. In a democratic society, citizens have the right to seek and receive information from public authorities, including the judiciary. Access to information is essential for individuals to understand the basis of court decisions and hold public officials accountable. However, when evidence or documents are presented in sealed covers, they are not accessible to the public or the parties involved in the case. This lack of transparency can erode public trust in the judicial system and raise concerns about the fairness of the decision-making process.
Furthermore, the use of sealed covers can also impede the Freedom of Expression. It encompasses the right to express opinions, share information, and participate in public debate. In court proceedings, where sealed covers are used, the information and evidence presented in those covers are not made available to the parties involved, including the public. This lack of transparency can limit the ability of individuals and the media to report on court proceedings, discuss and debate the merits of the case, and hold public officials accountable. It can also prevent the parties from fully exercising their right to present their arguments and evidence, as they may not have access to all relevant information. This can result in an imbalance of power and impact the fairness of the judicial process.
Recently, Chief Justice of India D.Y. Chandrachud has expressed concerns and criticisms about the use of sealed covers in court proceedings. He has highlighted the need for transparency and openness in the judicial process, as it is crucial for maintaining public trust in the judiciary. He has also emphasized the importance of striking a balance between national security concerns and the right to information and freedom of expression.
INTRODUCTION OF PUBLIC INTEREST IMMUNITY CLAIM PROCEDURE
The Supreme Court has introduced the “Public Interest Immunity Claim Procedure”. The procedure involves the appointment of an amicus curiae, who acts as an impartial advisor to the court, to evaluate the claims made by the State for withholding information in sealed covers. Amicus Curiae means friend of law. According to the Black Law dictionary, it means A party that is not involved in litigation but gives expert testimony when the court asks. They can support public interest not being addressed in the trial
Procedure of Amicus Curiae:
The court appointed amicus curiae to act as a bridge between the parties involved in public interest immunity claims. It will be given access to the materials sought to be withheld by the state and allowed to interact with the applicant and their lawyer before the proceedings to ascertain their case. It will not interact with the applicant or their counsel after the public interest immunity proceeding has begun and the counsel has viewed the document sought to be withheld. The amicus “shall to the best of their ability represent the interests of the applicant” and would be bound by oath to not disclose or discuss the material with any other person. The PII proceedings would be a “closed sitting,” but a reasoned order allowing or dismissing the PII claim of the state should be pronounced in open court.
BENEFITS OF PUBLIC INTEREST IMMUNITY CLAIM PROCEDURE
The procedure allows the government to withhold information that could be used to harm national security, such as intelligence sources, classified materials, or ongoing investigations. It can also be used to protect other important public interests, such as the privacy of individuals or the confidentiality of commercial information. This procedure can help to ensure that a fair trial is held by preventing the disclosure of information that could prejudice the outcome of the trial and also can help to protect the reputation of individuals by preventing the disclosure of information that could damage their reputation. Furtehr It can help to protect the confidentiality of legal advice by preventing the disclosure of information that was provided to a lawyer in confidence.
CHALLENGES AND LIMITATIONS OF THE PUBLIC INTEREST IMMUNITY CLAIM PROCEDURE
Article 145 states that every judgment of the Supreme Court must be in an open court. This procedure violates that. The court already takes so long to pronounce a judgment, this procedure adds another layer which makes it more time-consuming. It can violate the principle of natural justice which holds that everyone has the right to a fair hearing. The public immunity interest procedure can violate this principle by allowing the government to withhold information from the parties to a case, which can make it difficult for them to defend themselves.
In conclusion, the use of sealed cover jurisprudence in India has been a controversial practice that raises concerns about the impact on transparency, accountability, and freedom of expression. The introduction of the public interest immunity claim procedure by the Supreme Court is a step towards addressing these concerns and striking a balance between national security concerns and the right to information. However, challenges and limitations exist, and efforts should be made to ensure the impartiality of the amicus curiae and establish clear guidelines for invoking public interest immunity. Upholding fundamental rights, including the right to information and freedom of expression, is crucial in maintaining public trust in the judiciary and promoting transparency in the judicial process.
Author(s) Name: Kanhaiya