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[Breaking] Right To Be Forgotten- Courts Can't Direct Redaction Of Names Of Acquitted Persons From Records In Absence Of Statutory Backing: Madras HC

LIVELAW NEWS NETWORK
3 Aug 2021 7:41 AM GMT
[Breaking] Right To Be Forgotten- Courts Cant Direct Redaction Of Names Of Acquitted Persons From Records In Absence Of Statutory Backing: Madras HC
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The "right to be forgotten" cannot exist in the sphere of administration of justice particularly in the context of judgments delivered by Court.

The Madras High Court has refused to redact the name of a person from court records, who was acquitted of all criminal charges levelled against him, while stating that there is now law in India that contemplates such a request. Justice N. Anand Venkatesh, while refusing to grant relief to the Petitioner who had sought enforcement of his right to privacy, observed, "This Court...

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The Madras High Court has refused to redact the name of a person from court records, who was acquitted of all criminal charges levelled against him, while stating that there is now law in India that contemplates such a request.

Justice N. Anand Venkatesh, while refusing to grant relief to the Petitioner who had sought enforcement of his right to privacy, observed,

"This Court honestly feels that our criminal justice system is yet to reach such standards where courts can venture to pass orders for redaction of name of an accused person on certain objective criteria prescribed by rules or regulations."

It stated that the "right to be forgotten" cannot exist in the sphere of administration of justice. The only exception, it observed, is in cases of victims of rape and other sexual offences where the Supreme Court itself has directed that the identity of victims cannot be disclosed.

The Judge added,

"In the absence of any statutory backing this Court cannot undertake the exercise of issuing directions when no judicially manageable standards exist in the first place. There must be a proper policy formulated in this regard by means of specific rules…

It will be more appropriate to await the enactment of the Data Protection Act and Rules thereunder, which may provide an objective criterion while dealing with the plea of redaction of names of accused persons who are acquitted from criminal proceedings. If such uniform standards are not followed across the country, the constitutional courts will be riding an unruly horse which will prove to be counterproductive to the existing system."

Right to privacy does not exist in context of judgments and orders of a Court

The order has come in a plea wherein a man earlier accused of offences under Sections 417 (cheating) and 376 (rape) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) and subsequently acquitted of all charges moved the High Court to redact his name from the Court's judgment.

The petitioner had contended that although he was acquitted of all charges, anybody who types his name in Google search is unfortunately able to access the concerned judgement wherein he has been labelled as an accused. This causes a serious impediment to his reputation and accordingly he sought the Court's leave to redact his name from the concerned judgement.

The Court observed the administration of justice is a task carried out in public interest. Thus, right to be forgotten cannot exist in the sphere of administration of justice particularly in the context of judgments delivered by Courts.

It observed,

"The crux of the petitioner's case is that the continued reflection of his name as an accused in the judgment of this Court is a violation of his right to privacy under Article 21 of the Constitution or more specifically, its subset, the right to be forgotten. However, it is a settled position of law that a judicial order of a Court cannot violate fundamental rights under Part III of the Constitution."

The "right to be forgotten" cannot exist  in the sphere of administration of justice particularly in the context of judgments delivered by Court.

The Court observed that there is no law in India such as the General Data Protection Regulation for EU which includes a "right to erasure".

"In the absence of any statutory backing this Court cannot undertake the exercise of issuing directions when no judicially manageable standards exist in the first place", the Court observed.

"It will be more appropriate to await the enactment of the Data Protection Act and Rules thereunder, which may provide an objective criterion while dealing with the plea of redaction of names of accused persons who are acquitted from criminal proceedings. If such uniform standards are not followed across the country, the constitutional courts will be riding an unruly horse which will prove to be counterproductive to the existing system", the Court added.

The 36-page judgment delivered by the Court also briefly delved into the ambit of open court systems and public access to judgments of Courts.

Complete destruction of the entire criminal record

The Court opined that if the system is looking for identifying an effective right for a person acquitted in a criminal proceeding, it must be a consummate relief and there is no use in just erasing the name in a final judgment or order.

It added,

"In fact, it may prove to be counterproductive for a person to get their name erased from a judgment or order to prove their innocence, where there are other materials available in public domain, which pertains to damning their name when the criminal proceedings actually commenced."

Court cannot issue writ of mandamus to itself

The Court said that there is another hurdle in the direction of mandamus sought by the petitioner to redact his name from an order passed by a coordinate bench of the High Court.

It observed that a writ of mandamus cannot be issued against a judgment and order passed by the Court in exercise of its criminal appellate jurisdiction to alter the description of the petitioner in the cause title and the body of the judgment.

"The High Court is a Court of Record under Article 215 of the Constitution. As a superior Court of Record, it is entitled to preserve the original record in perpetuity. Thus, the sanctity of an original record cannot be altered or otherwise dealt with except in a manner prescribed by law. No judgment of any Court has been cited to show that the prerogative power of this Court under Article 226 extends to direct alteration of its own records," the order stated.

Reliance was placed on Naresh Sridhar Mirajkar v State of Maharashtra, whereby the Supreme Court had conclusively held that a writ does not lie to an order of a Court placed on an equal footing in the matter of jurisdiction.

"The jurisdiction and powers of the Madras High Court flowing from the Letters Patent of 1865 is channelled through different benches for the purposes of administrative convenience and orderly conduct of business. Thus, any judicial order, irrespective of the nature of jurisdiction and the strength of the Bench, is, in effect, the order of the High Court as one institution.

The point here is that since the High Court is one indivisible institution, a writ cannot lie against a judgment or order passed by it for that would tantamount to the High Court issuing writs against itself," the Judge observed.

Notably, the Court had earlier expressed a prima facie view that an acquitted accused has a right to get his name redacted from court records, and had invited views from the bar on the point. After elaborate hearing, the Court has now come to the present conclusion that no such right exists without a statutory backing.

Case Title: Karthick Theodre v. Registrar General, Madras High Court & Ors.

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