Delhi HC issues Landmark Guidelines to protect Right to Privacy in Family Matters [Read the Judgment]

Delhi HC issues Landmark Guidelines to protect Right to Privacy in Family Matters [Read the Judgment]

Hearing an appeal under the Family Courts Act, the Division Bench of the Delhi High Court has said that “lawyers are expected to act with professional responsibility in cases that involve disclosure of private and personal information. The Division Bench of Justice Murlidhar and Justice I.S. Mehta gave multiple directions in the judgment including, “Where a party in a case seeks to rely upon a document which in his or  her  assessment  or  the  assessment  of  the  party's  lawyer  is  of  a sensitive  nature, viz.,  which  contains details of  a personal or private nature  concerning  a  party  or  a  person  or  their  conduct,  which  when disclosed  is  likely  to  affect  the  right  to  privacy,  or  cause embarrassment, then such party and/or the lawyer of such party  will first apply to the Court seeking leave to produce such document in a sealed  cover.”

The Court added, “Till such time  that  leave is  granted the  contents  of  the said document shall not be extracted in the pleadings or a copy of the whole  or  part  thereof  enclosed  with  the  petition.  For  this  purpose  a document  would  include  any  writing,  private  letters,  notings, photographs, and documents in electronic form including video clips, text  messages,  chat  details,  emails,  printed  copies  thereof,  CCTV footage etc.”

Laying down the guidelines for the lower Courts, the High Court said that if a Court comes across such material, it should “pass  appropriate  orders  concerning  the  said  document  including providing  copies  thereof  to  the  parties,  preserving  the  originals  or copies  as  the  case  may  be  in  a  sealed  cover,  de-sealing  for  being produced  during  Court  proceedings  and  re-sealing  after  the  purpose for which they are directed to be produced is over.” It added that, “The Family Court will also bind down by specific directions, the parties and their respective lawyers, and the Court staff regarding the making of copies, use, preservation and  dissemination  of  such document with a view to maintaining its confidentiality. The Family Court can also pass necessary directions to specify the conditions upon which access would be permitted to such document by third parties.”

Asking the Courts to respect the privacy of the parties, the High Court asked the courts in future to take aid of the guidelines, specifically mentioning that they are not strict in nature and can be interpreted as per facts and circumstances. It also ordered, “The Family Court should as far as possible and practicable invoke the power under Section 11 of the Family Courts Act 1984 and hold the proceedings in camera.  Where the circumstances so warrant, the Family  Court  may  in  the  orders  uploaded  on  the  website  or  made available otherwise, suitably anonymize the names of the parties.”

Making an important observation regarding impact of litigation on the minds of children, the Court observed, “Unless there is a specific order of the Family Court, or where the party thinks it to be absolutely essential, or where suitable alternative arrangements  are  unable  to  be  made,  parties  should  avoid  bringing children to the Family Court on a routine basis. Lawyers should also advise  their  clients  in  this  regard  since  repeated  visits  to  Courts  to witness the legal contests between and among parents and relatives is not desirable or conducive for the healthy development of children.”

The High Court made these observations while hearing an appeal relating to visitation rights and custody over children. The High Court said, “Having  now  come  across  a  number  of  cases  of  matrimonial  and custody  disputes,  in  the  civil  and  criminal  jurisdictions,  the  Court notes with concern that there a growing trend among parties and their lawyers  to  readily  disclose  in  the  petitions,  in  the  form  of  pleadings and documents, the most private and personal details of their clients and  of  the  opposite  parties,  without  a  thought  for  the  privacy implications,  or  even  embarrassment  potential,  that  it  has.” Thereafter, the Division Bench proceeded to lay down the guidelines relating to submission of documents of personal nature.

The Court issued the following guidelines;

(i) Where a party in a case seeks to rely upon a document which in his or her assessment or the assessment of the party's lawyer is of a sensitive nature, viz., which contains details of a personal or private nature concerning a party or a person or their conduct, which when disclosed is likely to affect the right to privacy, or cause embarrassment, then such party and/or the lawyer of such party will first apply to the Court seeking leave to produce such document in a sealed cover. Till such time that leave is granted the contents of the said document shall not be extracted in the pleadings or a copy of the whole or part thereof enclosed with the petition. For this purpose a document would include any writing, private letters, notings, photographs, and documents in electronic form including video clips, text messages, chat details, emails, printed copies thereof, CCTV footage etc.

(ii) Where upon a party applying under (i) above, or where any other party, or the Family Court on its own, comes across a document on record in the case which is prima facie of a sensitive nature, viz., which contains details of a personal or private nature concerning a party or a person or their conduct, which when disclosed is likely to affect the right to privacy, or cause embarrassment, the Family Court will pass appropriate orders concerning the said document including providing copies thereof to the parties, preserving the originals or copies as the case may be in a sealed cover, de-sealing for being produced during Court proceedings and re-sealing after the purpose for which they are directed to be produced is over.

(iii) The Family Court will also bind down by specific directions, the parties and their respective lawyers, and the Court staff regarding the making of copies, use, preservation and dissemination of such document with a view to maintaining its confidentiality. The Family Court can also pass necessary directions to specify the conditions upon which access would be permitted to such document by third parties.

(iv) The Family Court will endeavour to decide on the issues at (i) (ii) and (iii) above, without unnecessary delay, in accordance with law. The above directions are in the nature of broad guidelines and can be suitably modified and adapted/applied to a given situation by the Family Court. The Family Court will, however, at all times keep in view the requirements of protecting the rights to privacy and dignity of the parties and persons.

(v) The Family Court should as far as possible and practicable invoke the power under Section 11 of the Family Courts Act 1984 and hold the proceedings in camera. Where the circumstances so warrant, the Family Court may in the orders uploaded on the website or made available otherwise, suitably anonymize the names of the parties.

Read the Judgment here.