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Public Interest Immunity Claims Proceeding

  • 11 Apr 2023
  • 6 min read

For Prelims: Sealed Cover Proceedings, Public Interest Immunity Claims Proceedings.

For Mains: SC’s Observations over Sealed Cover Proceedings

Why in News?

Recently, the Supreme Court of India ruled on the use of sealed cover proceedings in courts and the telecast ban of a Malayalam channel.

  • The Court criticised the government for silencing voices in the media and reducing constitutional rights and procedural guarantees of a fair hearing.
  • The Court also devised an alternative procedure for Public Interest Immunity claims proceedings to replace the use of sealed covers.

What are Sealed Cover Proceedings?

  • The sealed cover proceedings are often used in cases involving sensitive or confidential information, such as national security matters, or cases where the disclosure of the evidence may compromise the privacy of individuals involved.
  • In such cases, the documents or evidence are submitted to the court in a sealed cover, and only the judge and a designated court officer are allowed to examine the contents of the sealed envelope.
    • The parties to the case may not have access to the contents of the sealed cover, and the court may only rely on the information contained in the sealed cover to make its decision.
  • Sealed cover proceedings are a means of balancing the need for transparency in the judicial process with the need to protect sensitive information or individuals' privacy.
    • However, the use of sealed covers has reduced constitutional rights and procedural guarantees of a fair hearing under the law.

What is Public Interest Immunity Claims Proceeding?

  • About:
    • The Supreme Court evolved the “less restrictive” Public Interest Immunity (PII) claims proceedings as an “alternative” to the sealed cover proceedings while dealing with state requests for confidentiality.
    • 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.
  • Procedure – Role of Amicus Curiae:
    • The court will appoint an amicus curiae, which means "friend of the court", to act as a bridge between the parties involved in public interest immunity claims.
      • The court-appointed amicus 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.
    • The amicus curiae 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.
  • Drawback:
    • Since, Article 145 of the Constitution specifically mandates that all judgments of the Supreme Court be delivered in open court, closed sitting proceedings as per PII might fall against this constitutional mandate.
      • SC’s Response: While the court recognised that public interest immunity proceedings will take place in a closed setting, it stated clearly that the court is required to pass a reasoned order for allowing or dismissing the claim in open court.
      • Additionally, while PII claims also impact the principles of natural justice, sealed cover proceedings go a step ahead and infringe on the principles of natural justice as well as the principles of open justice.

What are SC’s Previous Observations over Sealed Cover Proceedings?

  • P. Gopalakrishnan vs The State of Kerala case (2019):
    • The SC held that disclosure of documents to the accused is constitutionally mandated, even if the investigation is ongoing and documents may lead to a breakthrough in the investigation.
  • INX Media case (2019):
    • The Supreme Court had criticised the Delhi High Court for basing its decision to deny bail to a former Union Minister on documents submitted by the Enforcement Directorate (ED) in a sealed cover.
      • It held the action as against the concept of fair trial.
  • Cdr Amit Kumar Sharma v Union of India case (2022):
    • The SC said, “the non-disclosure of relevant material to the affected party and its disclosure in a sealed cover to the adjudicating authority…sets a dangerous precedent.

Source: TH

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