SEALED COVER JURISPRUDENCE
20th February, 2023 POLITY AND GOVERNANCE
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- The Chief Justice of India (CJI) refused the ‘suggestions’ of the Union government in a sealed cover on the formation of a committee to enquire into the Hindenburg report on the Adani Group.
- The government and its agencies file reports in sealed envelopes directly in court without sharing the contents with the opposite party.
- This is usually done on the ground that the contents are highly sensitive, and may injure even national security or public order.
- Another reason given by State agencies is that the disclosure would affect the ongoing investigations.
- The origins of the practice can be traced to the administrative structure. Official service records and promotion assessments of individual personnel were received in a sealed cover to avoid harm to the reputation of officers.
About sealed cover jurisprudence
- It is a practice used by the Supreme Court and sometimes lower courts, of asking for or accepting information from government agencies in sealed envelopes that can only be accessed by judges.
- The Indian Constitution or any 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.
- It is mentioned under the rule that if the Chief Justice of India or court directs certain information to be kept under sealed cover or considers it of confidential nature, no party would be allowed access to the contents of such information, except if the Chief Justice himself orders that the opposite party be allowed to access it.
- It also mentions that information can be kept confidential if its publication is not considered in the public's interest.
- Under Section 123 of the Indian Evidence Act of 1872, Official unpublished documents relating to state affairs are protected and a public officer cannot be compelled to disclose such documents.
- It is against the principles of transparency and accountability of the Indian justice system.
- It promotes arbitrariness in court decisions, as judges are supposed to lay down the reasoning for their decisions. However, this cannot be done when they are based on information submitted confidentially.
- Not providing access to such documents to the accused parties obstructs their passage to a fair trial and adjudication.
- The petitioners cannot defend themselves, not knowing what they are supposed to defend against.
- The secrecy under the practice is eroding public confidence in the ‘open court’ principle of justice administration.
- Courts and tribunals need to ensure that the opposite parties are given a fair opportunity to present their case and challenge the evidence or arguments presented in it.
- The practice of Sealed Cover Jurisprudence needs to be balanced with the constitutional principles of due process, fair trial, and open justice and must be justified to the specific circumstances of the case.