Sealed Cover Jurisprudence – UPSC GS2

Context: The Supreme Court has criticized the government’s “sealed cover jurisprudence” in the courts.
What is ‘Sealed Cover’ Jurisprudence? 
  • Sealed Cover Jurisprudence 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.
  • There is no specific law that defines the doctrine of sealed cover.
  • Reasons for providing details in sealed cover are:
    • To protect highly sensitive information which may injure even national security or “public order”.
    • The disclosure would affect an ongoing investigation.
Related Legal Provisions:
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.
  • Rule 7 of order XIII of the Supreme Court Rules:
    • According to the rule, if the Chief Justice 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 to be in the interest of the public.
  • Section 123 of the Indian Evidence Act of 1872:
    • Under this act, official unpublished documents relating to state affairs are protected and a public officer cannot be compelled to disclose such documents.
    • Other instances where information may be sought in secrecy or confidence are when its publication impedes an ongoing investigation, such as details which are part of a police case diary.

What is the criticism of  ‘Sealed Cover’ Jurisprudence? 
  • ‘Sealed Cover’ Jurisprudence is challenged because it is incompatible with the Indian legal system’s values of transparency and accountability.
  • It is in contrast with the concept of an open court, where decisions can be scrutinized by the public.
  • It is maintained that denying accused parties access to such information obstructs their right to a fair trial and adjudication.
  • The Supreme Court ruled in the case of P Gopalakrishnan v. State of Kerala in 2019 that disclosure of documents to the accused is constitutionally required.