In a recent, remarkable, righteous and rational decision titled Smt. Krishna Veni Vs The Union of India and others in WPA No. 2346 of 2018 delivered on February 18, 2021, the single Judge Bench of Justice Sabyasachi Bhattacharyya has held that merely obtaining a customary divorce will not attract the exception envisaged under Section 29(2) of the Hindu Marriage Act. It has been made absolutely clear that the validity of such a divorce has to be established by a deed of declaration. Very rightly so!
To start with, the ball is set rolling in para 1 of this notable judgment wherein it is put forth that, “The present challenge has been preferred by Smt. Krishna Veni, the second wife of Sardar Natha Singh (since deceased), who was a freedom fighter getting pension from the Central Government under the Swatantra Sainik Samman Pension Scheme, 1980 till his demise on August 25, 1984. The petitioner, relying on a deed of declaration of divorce, purportedly executed by respondent no.11, the first wife and Sardar Natha Singh, the husband of the petitioner, claimed widow pension under the said Scheme, which was refused by a communication dated March 6, 2012 issued by the Assistant Secretary to the Government of West Bengal on the ground that such deed of divorce dated December 19, 1956 was not acceptable under the Hindu Marriage Act, 1955, in the absence of a decree for divorce obtained from a competent court of law.”
To put things in perspective, it is then laid down in para 10 that, “For Section 29(2) of the 1955 Act to be invoked, it has to be established by the party relying on a custom that the right of the party was recognized by custom, to obtain the dissolution of a Hindu marriage. In the present case, the petitioner did not approach the civil court for declaration regarding validity of the divorce deed.”
As it turned out, the Bench then states in para 11 that, “There was nothing to prevent the petitioner from approaching the competent civil court for such declaration. The burden and initial onus lies on the petitioner to prove the existence of a custom having the force of law, to be proved by evidence – oral or documentary – in order to attract the benefit of Section 29(2) of the Hindu Marriage Act.”
Needless to say, it is then stated in para 12 that, “Section 2(1)(b) of the Hindu Marriage Act, 1955 stipulates that the Act applies to Sikhs as well. Thus, the provisions of the Act, including Section 13 thereof (pertaining to divorce), applies to Sikhs in general. Admittedly, the petitioner, respondent no.11 and their deceased husband are/were Sikhs by religion. Hence, the marriage between the respondent no.11 and her deceased husband could only be dissolved by a decree of divorce passed by a competent court on any of the grounds as mentioned in Section 13 of the Act, unless the existence of any contrary custom was proved by evidence.”
Be it noted, it is then pointed out in para 13 that, “. In order to justify an exception to Section 13 within the purview of Section 29(2), the petitioner had to approach a civil court and establish by evidence that the dissolution of the marriage between the respondent no.11 and her deceased husband was recognized by custom. All Sikhs do not come within the purview of such exception, unless any custom to the contrary is proved by cogent evidence. The respondent-authorities do not have the jurisdiction in law to decide the matrimonial status of the private parties and/or the validity of the deed of declaration, which could only be done by adduction of adequate evidence before a civil court. Unfortunately, neither does the writ court, with its constraints in taking evidence on disputed questions of fact, has the scope to decide such issue.”
While elaborating further along with the relevant case law, it is then envisaged in para 14 that, “In Gurdit Singh (supra), the Supreme Court was dealing with an issue which arose in a civil suit. The trial court had decreed the marriage-in-question to be valid. The appellate court reversed such decree on the premise that the marriage between the parties was invalid, being not justified by any custom. Upon the issue being remitted to the trial court, after giving the parties an opportunity to lead further evidence, the trial court answered the issue regarding the existence of such custom in the negative, which was endorsed by the appellate court. In second appeal, the High Court held that a custom was proved under which Mst. Angrez Kaur, respondent could validly marry Sunder Singh, even though her first husband was alive. While considering such matter, the Supreme Court observed that the witnesses examined on behalf of the appellant had admitted the existence of a custom permitting the Hindu husband to divorce his wife. Upon such premise, the Supreme Court proceeded to endorse such view.”
While citing yet another relevant case law, the Bench then observes in para 15 that, “ In Balwinder Singh (supra), the matter in issue before the Supreme Court also arose from a civil suit, wherein the trial court declared the marriage solemnized between the parties in accordance with Hindu rites and ceremony as null and void and granted a decree of nullity of marriage. The appellate court had found that the evidence adduced by the appellant was not sufficient and reliable enough to establish the existence of the custom amongst the Sikhs Jats of District Amritsar to which District the appellant and its parents belonged, under which the marriage between the appellant and his previous wife could be dissolved otherwise than through court as per the provisions of the Hindu Marriage Act.”
It would be pertinent to mention that it is then stated in para 16 that, “While dealing with such question, the Delhi High Court considered the evidence adduced by the parties and sanctioned the dissolution of marriage by execution of a deed of divorce.”
Simply put, it is then mentioned in para 17 that, “The Andhra Pradesh High Court, in Doddi Appa Rao (supra), was also considering a case where a civil court had decreed a suit for declaration that the marriage of the plaintiff and the defendant therein was dissolved as per caste custom and usage. In such context, it was held by the Division Bench of the Andhra Pradesh High Court that the Central Administrative Tribunal ought to have honoured such decree.”
It would be useful to also note that it is then specified in para 18 that, “In G. Thimma Reddy (supra), the learned Single Judge considered several factors apart from the registered deed of divorce, including that the factum of divorce was disregarded on a flimsy ground that the stamp affixed to the document of divorce was in the name of a wrong person. The court also took into consideration the fact that the spouses were living separately and in possession of lands settled in their favour, for which no need for divorce was there. Oral evidence was also adduced by several witnesses, one of them a caste elder who had also attested the document. P.Ws 1 to 3 therein spoke of existing custom in the caste of the spouses sanctioning such divorce. Moreover, the adjudication in the said report was in the context of a land dispute between the parties.”
As a corollary, it is then pointed out in para 19 that, “As such, in each of the judgments cited by the petitioner, a valid decree, sectioning the respective documents of divorce, had been passed by competent civil courts. In the present case, however, no such decree was obtained by the petitioner.”
In addition, it is then also brought out in para 20 that, “That apart, it is pleaded by the writ petitioner herself that the Government of India, Ministry of Home Affairs, New Delhi, sanctioned payment of political pension to the first wife, that is, respondent no.11 with effect from August 26, 1984 by a letter dated February 14, 1986 and Pension Payment Order was issued accordingly in favour of respondent no.11. For whatever reason such pension might have been withheld subsequently, the initial grant of pension to respondent no. 11 is an endorsement of the fact that the first wife was found eligible for such pension by the respondent authorities and she had already started getting pension.”
Perhaps more crucially, it is then elaborated in para 21 that, “It is relevant to mention here that a suit-in-question was filed by respondent no.11, inter alia, for declaration that she was the only married wife and the only widow of Sardar Natha Singh (since deceased) and was entitled to widow pension and that the present petitioner was not the wife and widow of Sardar Natha Singh. Learned counsel for the petitioner argues that the said suit was dismissed for default and the subsequent restoration application filed by respondent no.11 met with the same fate. As such, it is contended that respondent no.11 is debarred from raising the contentions on which declaration was sought by her in the dismissed suit.”
To state the obvious, the Bench then notes in para 22 that, “Order IX Rule 9 of the Code of Civil Procedure debars a plaintiff from bringing a fresh suit in respect of the same cause of action in the event of dismissal of a suit for default. However, it is well-settled that such a dismissal, ipso facto, would not take away the right of the plaintiff which was under consideration in the suit. Such right, if available otherwise to the plaintiff in accordance with law, subsists despite the dismissal of the suit for default. The plaintiff in such a suit may very well raise a defence on the basis of such right in a different suit or legal action and/or may agitate the same right in a suit filed by her on a subsequent cause of action.”
Of course, it is then rightly stated in para 23 that, “Thus, in the present case, the dismissal of the suit of respondent no.11 for default does not preclude the said respondent from staking her claim before any authority other than a civil court, that too in a suit filed by her on the self-same cause of action, and/or setting up a defence in the writ petition on the basis of such claim.”
Most significantly, it is then aptly observed in para 24 that, “In the utter absence of any evidence, let alone conclusive, that the divorce decree executed purportedly between respondent no.11 and her deceased husband was endorsed by any valid custom, the exception envisaged in Section 29(2) of the 1955 Hindu Marriage Act would not be attracted. Thus, the spouses had to revert back to Section 13 of the Act, which sanctions dissolution of marriage only by a decree of divorce, for the dissolution of marriage to be valid in the eye of law.”
What’s more, it is then also pointed out in para 25 that, “Such facts, coupled with the fact that pension was granted earlier in favour of respondent no.11 upon a valid sanction being issued by the respondent-authorities, it would be unjust to deprive respondent no.11 from such pension at the behest of the petitioner, merely on the basis of the petitioner’s assertion on oath in this writ petition that a deed of divorce, supported by valid and recognized customs, was executed between respondent no.11 and her deceased husband.”
As was anticipated, the Bench then goes on to add in para 26 that, “ I must note that, in view of the long-pending litigation between the private parties, it would be lucrative to direct pension to be paid equally between the petitioner and respondent no.11. However, such a course of action would be grossly illegal. Although my empathy goes fully with the petitioner, who is an unemployed lady of about 63 years as per her own affidavit, this court does not have the power to enact law but is bound by the provisions of law as the Parliament, in its wisdom, chose to promulgate. Where a conflict arises between individual conscience of the concerned Judge and judicial conscience, supported by law of the land, the former has to give way to the latter.”
Now coming to the concluding paras. It is held in para 27 that, “In such view of the matter, the writ petition fails. Accordingly, WPA No.2346 of 2018 is dismissed on contest without any order as to costs.” Finally, it is then held in the last para 28 that, “Urgent certified copies of this order shall be supplied to the parties applying for the same, upon due compliance of all requisite formalities.”
To conclude, the sum and substance of this noteworthy judgment is that that merely obtaining a customary divorce will certainly not attract the exception envisaged under Section 29(2) of the Hindu Marriage Act. It merits no reiteration that for Section 29(2) of the 1955 Act to be invoked, it has to be established by the party relying on a custom that the right of the party was recognized by custom to obtain the dissolution of a Hindu marriage. Very rightly so!
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TRADE NOT MORE IMPORTANT THAN HEALTH: KERALA HC DISMISSES PLEA SEEKING WITHDRAWAL OF WEEKEND LOCKDOWN IN STATE
In a progressive, powerful and penetrating observation, the Kerala High Court has just recently on July 27, 2021 in a latest, landmark, laudable and learned judgment titled A Hameed Hajee v. State of Kerala in WP(C) NO. 14867 OF 2021 while ruling explicitly that trade is not more important than health has dismissed a petition seeking withdrawal of the weekend lockdowns imposed in the State amid the pandemic. It must be mentioned here that the Bench of Kerala High Court comprising of Chief Justice S Manikumar and Justice Shaji P Chaly observed that the prayers sought for by the petitioners would be contrary to the directions issued by the Supreme Court. Very rightly so!
To start with, this latest, learned, laudable and landmark judgment authored by Chief Justice S Manikumar for himself and Justice Shaji P Chaly of Kerala High Court sets the ball rolling by first and foremost observing in para 1 that, “Instant writ petition has been filed for the following reliefs:-
“i. Issue a writ of mandamus or any other appropriate writ order or direction to the respondent to withdraw the lock down imposed on Saturdays and Sundays and restriction imposed on all shops, establishments, banks, other institutions, in the state enabling them to function on all days without any time restrictions;
ii. Issue a writ of mandamus or any other appropriate writ order or direction to the respondents to allow the shops, establishments, banks, other institutions to function more time including Sundays to reduce overcrowding of people by maintaining social distancing at all time;
iii. Issue a writ of mandamus or any other appropriate writ order or direction to the respondent to pass an order to functions Offices and other essentials services of Government Banks and Financial Institutions and other institutions on Sundays by following rotations of employees by granting leave on weekday to ensure services to all needy by avoiding overcrowding;
iv. Issue a writ of mandamus or any other appropriate writ, order to the respondent implement effective and efficient plan to strict adherence of Covid Protocol and Social Distancing each and every corner of the state.””
To put things in perspective, the Bench then puts forth in para 2 that, “Short facts leading to filing of the writ petition are as hereunder:-
According to the petitioner, the lock down and restrictions imposed by the State Government to control the spread of Covid-19 has proved to be as unsuccessful, evidencing from the current status of continuing constant rate of TPR in the State. Due to the indefinite extension of complete lock down on Saturday and Sundays, and other restrictions on the functioning of shops, establishments, Banks and other Institutions in the State, on a restricted time period and days, cause overcrowding in all these places, during the period of its functioning, cases have not come down. Petitioner has contended that the number of people or customers are not reduced, by imposing the lock down, but the Government have restrained, to a shorter period, to avail and meet the demands of public and others, the needs and requirements, which cause the overcrowding in shops and other establishments, violating the Covid Protocol and social distancing, the most effective and efficient method accepted across the world, for controlling spread of Covid-19. Petitioner has further contended that there are more than 30 lakh shops and establishments functioning in the State of Kerala and more than 90 lakh workers employed in these shops and establishments. Due to lock down and restrictions on the functioning of shops and establishments, merchants, businessmen, their employees and their families are facing huge financial stringency. The family of these people are purely depending on these sectors for their livelihood and other needs. Due to restrictions to open and functioning of the shops and establishments, huge stock purchased by the merchants are lying idle, holding their huge investment. Apart from that, dues in rent for shops and buildings, electricity and water charges, EMI for loan, wages and salary of its works and employees, etc., piled up the financial burden and liability of merchants in the State. Petitioner has also contended that in the urge of effective and efficient method to control the Covid-19 in the State and safeguard the interest of the merchants and businessmen in the State, according to the petitioner, the Government is still continuing with the proven failed method of implementing lock down and restriction on shops and establishment to control spread of pandemic Covid-19, which is highly necessary to be withdrawn in the current scenario and that the Government should come out with effective implementation of Covid Protocol, social distancing and sanitation and cleanliness, a world wide accepted method of controlling spread of Covid-19.”
Simply put, the Bench then envisages in para 5 that, “Learned Advocate General further submitted that having regard to the ‘Kanwar Yatra’ in Uttar Pradesh, Hon’ble Supreme Court registered Suo motu Writ Petition (C). No.5 of 2021 and, on 14.7.2021, issued certain directions and further directed to list the matter on 16.07.2021. Subsequently, on 18.07.2021, an interlocutory application, viz., I.A. No.82837 of 2021, in Suo motu Writ Petition (C).No.5 of 2021 is filed on behalf of one Mr. P.K.D. Nambiar, pointing out certain news articles, which portray an alarming situation taking place in Kerala as a result of Bakrid celebrations.”
Most significantly, the Bench then observes in para 6 that, “Having heard learned counsel for the parties therein, in I.A. No.82837 of 2021, the Hon’ble Supreme Court, on 20.7.2021, passed the following orders:
“What is extremely alarming is the fact that in Category D, where infections are the highest i.e. 15%, a full day of relaxation has been granted, which was yesterday. It is then stated that, as far as possible, the persons visiting shops and other establishments may belong to those with at least one dose of vaccine/COVID recovered category and follow strict COVID protocols, echoing paragraph (vi) of the 17th July, 2021 Notification, along with the Chief Minister’s appeal. The aforesaid facts disclose an alarming state of affairs. To give in to pressure groups so that the citizenry of India is laid bare to a nationwide pandemic discloses a sorry state of affairs. Even otherwise, homilies such as “as far as possible” and assurances from traders without anything more, do not inspire any confidence in the people of India or this Court. We may only indicate that this affidavit discloses a sorry state of affairs as has been stated hereinabove, and does not in any real manner safeguard the Right to Life and Health guaranteed to all the citizens of India under Article 21 of the Constitution of India. It may also be pointed out that the relaxation for one day to a Category D area was wholly uncalled for. In these circumstances, we direct the State of Kerala to give heed to Article 21 read with Article 144 of the Constitution of India, and follow the law laid down in our orders in the Uttar Pradesh case i.e., 14.7.2021, 16.7.2021 and 19.7.2021. Also, pressure groups of all kinds, religious or otherwise, cannot in any manner, interfere with this most precious Fundamental Right of all the citizens of India. We may also indicate that if as a result of the Notification dated 17.07.2021, any untoward spread in the Covid-19 disease takes place, any member of the public may bring this to the notice of this Court, after which this Court will take necessary action against those who are responsible. In view of the above, I.A. No.82837 of 2021 and the suo motu writ petition are disposed of.””
Adding more to it, the Bench then points out in para 7 that, “Mr. K. Gopalakrishna Kurup, learned Advocate General, further submitted that there will be a review of the COVID-19 pandemic situation in Kerala and depending upon the decision, the restrictions either relaxed in certain cases or made stringent, as the case may be. According to him, only after a comprehensive decision is taken, appropriate orders will be issued by the Government.”
Furthermore, the Bench then points out in para 8 that, “Placing on record the above submission, having regard to the orders of the Hon’ble Apex dated 20.7.2021, extracted supra, and taking note of the submission that a review will be conducted on COVID-19 pandemic situation, we are of the view that the interim order granted on 19.05.2021, periodically extended, requires further extension. Interim order is extended upto 9.8.2021. Registry is directed to post this suo motu writ petition on 06.08.2021.””
What’s more, the Bench then further added that, “Thus, when the Hon’ble Supreme Court had already taken note of the Covid situation in Kerala and observed that relaxation of the restrictions, even for a day to some category of area, was wholly uncalled for, and that when the Hon’ble Supreme Court has also observed that it was the sorry state of affairs that State of Kerala, does not in any real manner, safeguard the rightful life and health guaranteed to all the citizens under Article 21 of the Constitution, the prayers sought for, would be contrary to the directions issued by the Hon’ble Supreme Court.”
Finally and far most significantly, the Bench then holds in the final para that, “That apart, judicial notice can also be taken that in the State of Kerala, the Test Positivity Rate is increasing, despite the measures taken by the Government, to contain the spread of Covid – 19. Trade or business is not more important than health, which is integral to right to life. Reasonable restrictions can be imposed on trade or business. Article 19 (6) and 21 of the Constitution of India, encourages, right to trade and business. If only there is health and life, one can engage himself in trade or business. Having regard to the above, we are not inclined to issue any mandamus as prayed for by the writ petitioner. Writ petition is dismissed.”
Of course, it would not be an exaggeration to say that the final para forms the cornerstone of this brief, brilliant and balanced judgment which very rightly accords the supreme importance to health and also minces no words to hold that, “Trade or business is not more important than health, which is integral to right to life.” We all must always adhere to it and this alone explains why it is so famously said also that, “Health is wealth.” If our health is not good then we cannot enjoy anything in life no matter how much wealth we may have with us! There is certainly no valid reason to disagree with what the Division Bench of Kerala High Court comprising of Chief Justice S Manikumar and Justice Shaji P Chaly have held so explicitly, elegantly and effectively in this noteworthy case while dismissing the plea seeking withdrawal of weekend lockdown in the State! There can certainly just be no denying it!
STATUTORY ARBITRATION UNDER THE MSMED ACT, 2006: AN ANALYSIS OF THE SUPREME COURT’S JUDGEMENT IN SILPI INDUSTRIES
The resolution of disputes by arbitration has become one of the preferred modes of dispute resolution in India. The reasons for the popularity of arbitration as a mode of dispute resolution are three-fold: one, arbitration provides for a quick resolution of the disputes between the parties by a mutually (sometimes also unilaterally appointed) appointed arbitrator(s), respecting party autonomy and consent of the parties; two, the evolution of arbitration-friendly approach of courts and legislature in India; and three, the provisions of compulsory/optional arbitration under different statutory instruments in India. The Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises Act, 2006 (MSMED Act) passed by the Indian Parliament with the objective of the promotion, development, and enhancement of competitiveness of micro, small and medium enterprises enunciates statutory arbitration as a recovery mechanism in cases of disputes concerning payment of dues between the parties.
One of the central objectives of the MSMED Act is to provide for speedy disposal of the claims of the suppliers (micro, small and medium enterprises under the MSMED Act) with regards to recovery of dues. Chapter V of the MSMED Act enacts the provisions regarding delayed payments to MSMEs. Section 18 of the MSMED Act lays down the procedure to be followed for the resolution of disputes concerning payments due to be paid by a buyer to a supplier under the MSMED Act. Section 18 of Chapter V enunciates a two-tier dispute resolution mechanism for the settlement of payment disputes between the parties: first, the parties may make a reference to the Micro and Small Enterprises Facilitation Council (Facilitation Council) and the Facilitation Council shall then, either itself or through any other institution or centre providing alternate dispute resolution services, conduct conciliation in the matter under the provisions of Part III of the Arbitration and Conciliation Act, 1996 (ACA); and second, if the conciliation is unsuccessful and there is no settlement of disputes between the parties, the Felicitation Council is mandated to either itself conduct an arbitration or refer the parties to any institution or centre for conducting such arbitration under the provisions of ACA.
Recently, the Hon’ble Supreme Court of India (SCI) in M/s Silpi Industries & Ors. v. Kerala State Road Transport Corporation & Ors., Civil Appeals Nos. 1570-1578 of 2021 (Silpi Industries) decided upon two important questions of law regarding statutory arbitration under the MSMED Act read with the ACA. The following were the questions answered by the SCI in its judgement: (1) Whether or not the provisions of the Indian Limitation Act, 1963 apply to arbitration proceedings initiated under Section 18(3) of the MSMED Act; and (2) Whether or not, a counter-claim is maintainable in such arbitration proceedings. In this article, the authors shall be analysing the judgement of the SCI in Silpi Industries, and its potential implication on Micro and Small industries registered and unregistered under the MSMED Act.
There were two batches of appeals heard by the SCI in Silpi Industries. In the first batch of appeals, the appellants were aggrieved by the judgement of the High Court (HC) of Kerala in an arbitration appeal matter wherein the HC had held that Limitation Act, 1963 is applicable on proceedings initiated under Section 18(3) of the MSMED Act read together with ACA. Further, following the judgement of the Allahabad HC in M/s B.H.P. Engineers Pvt. Ltd. v. Director, Industries, UP Facilitation Centre, Kanpur & Ors., 2009 SCC OnLine All 565 and the Nagpur Bench of Bombay HC in M/s Steel Authority of India Ltd. & Anr. v. Micro, Small Enterprise Facilitation Council, 2010 SCC OnLine Bom 2208, the Kerala HC had held that owing to the provisions of Section 23(2A) of the ACA, counterclaim and set off is maintainable in an arbitration proceeding arising out of institutional arbitration under Section 18(3) of the MSMED Act.
In the second batch of appeals, i.e., Civil Appeals No. 1620-22 of 2021, the appellant was aggrieved by the judgement of the Madras HC in which a second arbitrator was appointed by the HC under Section 11(6) of the ACA. The relevant facts were such that the appellants had filed a claim petition against the respondent before the Facilitation Council under the MSMED Act. Although the respondent appeared before the Facilitation Council, the respondent, in furtherance of its arbitration agreement with the appellant, had made an application before the Madras HC for the appointment of a second arbitrator under Section 11(6) of the ACA. The Madras HC allowed the application of the respondent for the appointment of a second arbitrator, and owing to the provisions of the MSMED Act, did not agree with the case of the appellant that the application of respondent is liable to be dismissed given the pending claim petition before the Facilitation Council. Aggrieved by the order of the Madras HC, the appellant had preferred Civil Appeals No. 1620-22 before the SCI.
Applicability of Limitation Act, 1963 on arbitral proceedings under the MSMED Act-
To begin with, the first issue which concerns the applicability of the Limitation Act on the arbitral proceedings under the MSMED Act, the Supreme Court concurred with the decision of the High Court and reiterated the ratio laid down in one of its previous judgments. Taking note of the provisions of Section 43 of the ACA, the SCI propounded that Limitation Act, 1963 will also be applicable on arbitrations arising out of Section 18(3) of the MSMED Act. The apex court observed that when the parties to a dispute, one of whom is qualified as an MSME enterprise, fail to come to terms under the MSMED Act, Section 18(3) of MSMED Act obliges the Facilitation Council to refer the parties to arbitration as per the ACA. Once arbitration is invoked as per Section 18(3) of the MSMED Act, all the provisions of the ACA will automatically become applicable to it. Accordingly, every such arbitral proceeding shall be deemed to be construed as arising out of an arbitration agreement stipulated under Section 7(1) of ACA, even when the parties had not incorporated such arbitration agreement at the time of entering into a contract. The stance taken by the Supreme Court on this particular issue seems to be settled from the beginning as a variety of judgments by courts ranging from High Courts to the Supreme Court have consistently followed this approach. Furthermore, a contrary view to the above-stated position is not feasible as the law on such an issue is clear, categorical, and longstanding. Any contrary view would sabotage the primary purpose of limitation contemplated under the Limitation Act, 1963.
Maintainability of counter-claim & set-off in an arbitration proceeding under the MSMED Act-
Another very important aspect that constitutes the heart of the judgment is the issue of the maintainability of counterclaim in arbitral proceedings initiated under Section 18(3) of the MSMED Act. In this regard, the Court had delved into the legislative intent underlying the MSMED Act, 2006 which is to safeguard the interests of the MSMEs. The said legislation confers benefits upon the sellers which qualify to be MSMEs, in pursuance of a beneficial object that it purports. Such conferment of benefits can find its roots within various provisions of Chapter V of MSMED Act which not only prescribes the rights and obligations of the seller and the buyer, respectively, but it also provides for the mechanism for recovery of any unpaid amount to the seller. Sections 15 and 17 of the MSMED Act 2006 require the buyer to make payment of the amount due to the seller (MSME) within the time agreed by the parties or time prescribed under the Act, failure of which would render the buyer liable to pay the due amount in addition to compound interest at the rate three times of the bank rate. Additionally, Section 19 enables the buyer/applicant to apply for setting aside an award, decree, or order passed in favour of the seller, only when she deposits 75% of the amount in terms of the award or decree.
Given the aforesaid provisions, the court opined that ousting the jurisdiction of the Facilitation Council merely on the ground of inadmissibility of the counterclaim by the buyer/Respondent under proceedings under section 18(3) of MSMED Act would defeat the very purpose of the MSMED Act as the seller (MSME) would not be able to enforce its rights against the buyer in case of any default in payment by the latter. That is to say, if counter-claim is not allowed, the buyer can easily evade its statutory obligation of payment of compound interest at the rate three times of the bank rate and security deposit of 75% envisaged under Sections 16 and 19 of MSMED, respectively, by filing a counter-claim in the proceedings under Section 18(3) of MSMED Act. Such a decision implies that even when there is a separate agreement for the resolution of disputes between the parties, the parties are bound to follow the recovery mechanism stipulated under the statute of the MSMED Act.
The mechanism for the recovery of the unpaid amount provided within Section 18 of MSMED Act stipulates that in case of any dispute with regards to the non-payment of amount due to the seller, any party may refer to the Facilitation Council which will then conduct conciliation between the parties as per subsection (2) Section 18 of MSMED Act. It is only when the parties fail to conciliate, the parties are mandatorily referred to arbitration under Section 18(3) as a result of which all the provisions of ACA will become applicable to such arbitration as if there is an arbitration agreement between the parties under Section 7(1) of ACA. While making special reference to Section 23(2A) of the ACA, the Supreme Court has highlighted that when there is already a provision for filing a counterclaim under Section 23(2A) of the ACA, there is no point in denying the right of the buyer/respondent to file a counterclaim in the arbitration proceedings before the Facilitation Council under Section 18(3) of MSMED Act. The rationale behind the insertion of the provision of counterclaim within the ACA was to prevent multiplicity of proceedings and diverse claims. Curtailing the right of buyer/respondent in the arbitration proceedings under Section 18(3) would initiate parallel proceedings in distinct forums. In this way, the seller who is a beneficiary under the MSMED Act would claim before Facilitation Council under the provisions of the MSMED Act, while the buyer would either approach the civil court for making its claims or seek the appointment of an arbitrator if there is an arbitration agreement between the parties. Hence, refusal to admit the counterclaim in the arbitral proceedings before the Facilitation Council under Section 18(3) of MSMED Act, 2006 will lead to conflicting findings by different forums and render such proceedings redundant.
Dhanbad judge death: Court wants speedy, fair and professional probe; Jharkhand HC seeks SIT report on 3 Aug
It is most shocking to see that an upright, fearless and dedicated Judge named Uttam Anand has been brutally murdered by goons on July 28 in a three wheeler vehicle which has shocked the conscience of the entire nation except those politicians who feel that it is too trivial a matter to be discussed in Parliament and what is most serious is that their phones were hacked and this has seriously invaded their exclusive privacy. No doubt, hacking of phone is an illegal act and those who are behind it must be dealt with in accordance with law but does this mean that Opposition should hold Parliament to ransom and tear papers in Parliament, snatch it from Minister and tear it, shout and not allow Parliament to function and ignore the brutal murder of ADJ (Additional District Judge) Uttam Anand as a “routine affair”? Why it makes no difference to our Opposition MPs and why they are not ready to mourn the brutal murder of Uttam Anand and demand a thorough probe into it?
Why are they concerned only with mobile snooping and phone snooping? If they have nothing to hide then why are they so perturbed? Is Pegasus snooping row a more important issue or brutal murder of an ADJ which is nothing but a direct attack on our judiciary itself? Does the life of a Judge signify nothing? I really pity at all those MPs who are not allowing Parliament to function smoothly and who are not at all concerned with the brutal and ghastly murder of this fearless Judge who placed his values above his own safety!
It is however good to note that senior lawyer named Vikas Singh who is President of Supreme Court Bar Association, Chief Justice of India NV Ramana and Jharkhand High Court have all taken this key issue most seriously for which they must be lauded. The Division Bench of Jharkhand High Court comprising of Chief Justice Dr Ravi Ranjan and Justice Sujit Narayan Prasad has taken suo motu cognizance of ADJ Uttam Anand’s death and has directed the Special Investigation Team formed to probe into the incident, to submit its report by August 3. The Division Bench in its oral order dated 29 July, 2021 first and foremost points out in para 1 that, “The matter has been taken up through video conferencing.”
To put things in perspective, the Bench then points out in para 2 that, “A letter has been received by the In-Charge Registrar General written by the Principal District and Sessions Judge, Dhanbad bearing letter No.2788-G/2021 dated 29.07.2021 intimating incidence regarding sad and unfortunate demise of Shri Uttam Anand, District and Additional Sessions Judge-VIII, Dhanbad on 28.07.2021. The content of the aforesaid letter is reproduced hereunder:- “LETTER NO. 2788-G/2021 From : Ram Sharma’ Principal District and Sessions Judge, Civil Court, Dhanbad. To, The Registrar General, High Court of Jharkhand, Ranchi. Dhanbad dated 29.07.2021 Subject : Intimation regarding untimely demise of Sri Uttam Anand, District and Addl. Sessions Judge-VIII on 28.07.2021. Sir, This is to bring to you kind notice that on 28th July 2021 at about 9.20 am, I was informed by the Registrar, Civil Court Dhanbad, that Sri Uttam Anand, District and Addl Sessions Jude-VIII had gone for a morning walk but did not return till now. I instructed him to contact the local police immediately and visit the nearby hospitals. The SSP Dhanbad was also informed telephonically in this regard and photograph of Sri Uttam Anand, District and Addl. Sessions Judge-VIII was also circulated to police personnels and the court staffs. During the course of search it was discovered that Sri Uttam Anand, District and Addl. Session Judge -VIII was found critically injured near Randhir Verma Chowk and was brought to PMCH Hospital. I immediately rushed to PMCH Hospital and found him dead. The attending doctors informed me that he was brought to the hospital by one Pawan Kumar Pandey and thereafter necessary treatment was given to Sri Uttam Anand and he was also put on ventilator but succumbed to his injuries. Thereafter, necessary instructions were issued to the police with regard to arrest of culprits. This is for your information and needful. Yours Faithfully Sd/- 29.7.21 Ram Sharma Principal District and Sessions Judge Dhanbad” Let letter No.2788-G/2021 dated 29.07.2021 be kept on record.”
While taking suo motu cognizance, the Bench then puts forth in para 3 that, “This Court, on the basis of the aforesaid letter as also the CCTV footage, takes suo moto cognizance of the matter treating the letter as the writ petition in the nature of Public Interest Litigation. Office is directed to register the case accordingly.” To be sure, the Bench then observes in para 4 that, “We have gone through the content of the aforesaid letter as also perused the CCTV recording of the occurrence and, therefore, called upon the learned Advocate General of the State, Director General of Police, Jharkhand, Senior Superintendent of Police (SSP), Dhanbad and Superintendent of Police (City), Dhanbad as also Mr. Rajiv Sinha, learned Additional Solicitor General of India.”
To put things in perspective, the Bench then enunciates in para 5 that, “We, during the Court proceeding, asked the Office of this Court to display the CCTV footage of the incident which has been perused by the learned Advocate General and the officers who are present today. The Senior Superintendent of Police, Dhanbad has submitted in course of hearing that two persons have been apprehended. One of them is auto-rickshaw driver and another person who was sitting in the vehicle. Interrogation is being done by the Special Investigating Team constituted by him.” While elaborating on the facts of the case, the Bench then envisages in para 6 that, “The members of the Bar have also appeared and submitted before us that the incident, in which a judicial officer has been killed, cannot be taken as a simple case of accident or murder rather the investigation is required to be conducted by the investigating agency on the angle that there may be conspiracy for the killing of the judicial officer as, according to them, the judicial officer concerned was in the seisin of very sensitive matters. It has further been submitted that it cannot be believed that this incident is a simple accident by a vehicle as the place where the incident took place is the prime location of the town of Dhanbad or it may be called as the main chowk of Dhanbad and when the concerned judicial officer was on morning walk, he was approached by autorickshaw. It would be evident from the CCTV footage that the vehicle, at the morning time when there was no traffic at all on the road took a sharp bend and approached the judicial officer who was jogging on the footpath on the left side. The auto-rickshaw came from behind and suddenly went towards the judicial officer. It slowed down when it just came beside him and then the judicial officer fell down on his left side. They have submitted that it would be more surprising to see the CCTV footage that one motor-bike rider who was coming from the opposite side of the auto-rickshaw took a u-turn and had followed the auto-rickshaw and when the concerned judicial officer has fallen, he watched the judicial officer falling down and thereafter fled away. They submitted that after watching such CCTV footage it does not appear to be an accidental death, rather it appears that it is a well conspired killing of the judicial officer that too just adjacent to the residence of the judicial officers in the town of Dhanbad. They have submitted that it is further surprising that the CCTV footage immediately went viral. Question is, when the CCTV cameras which have been installed in the municipal roads, is expected to be under the control of the district administration then how the aforesaid CCTV footage could become viral? They have also submitted that as per the newspaper report, the aforesaid auto-rickshaw has been found to be of one Sugni Devi, who in course of interrogation has apprised the investigating agency that her auto-rickshaw has been stolen. It is submitted that the occurrence is nothing but a brazen attack on the justice delivery system perhaps to give some message across the country therefore, it is a fit case where the investigation is required to be handed over to the Central Agency i.e., Central Bureau of Investigation.”
Needless to say, the Bench then while referring to eminent and senior advocate – Vikas Singh who is the President of Supreme Court Bar Association and who is actively monitoring this case points out in para 7 that, “During the Court proceeding, Mr. Vikas Singh, President of the Supreme Court Bar Association, had prayed to provide him link to appear in this case. Such link was provided to him and in pursuance thereto Mr. Singh appeared during the Court proceeding and has submitted that the incident of murder of the judicial officer is nothing but an attack on the judicial system of the country and ultimately a brazen attack of our democratic system. As such, he contended that the matter is required to be investigated by C.B.I.”
Be it noted, the Bench then observes in para 8 that, “We have put a question to the Superintendent of Police (City), Dhanbad who is heading the Special Investigating Team, that as to whether the two wheeler rider has been apprehended or not? He has replied that the two wheeler rider has not been apprehended but the persons riding the auto-rickshaw have been apprehended. We have also put query to the Senior Superintendent of Police, Dhanbad that what is the proof regarding theft of the auto-rickshaw, as has been said by Rugni Devi, the owner of the auto-rickshaw and whether the theft of that auto-rickshaw was ever been reported to any police station? Upon this the Senior Superintendent of Police has submitted that as yet it has not been verified. He further submits that he will take care of this angle and will also investigate this aspect of the matter.”
Please read concluding on thedailyguardian.com
It is also worth noting that the Bench then mentions in para 9 that, “Learned Advocate General has submitted that since the Special Investigating Team has been constituted and two vital persons have been apprehended, therefore, at this stage matter may not be handed over to the Central Bureau of Investigation otherwise it will have a demoralizing effect upon the police force of the State. He further submits that if this Court deems it fit and proper then the State is ready to appoint a high rank police officer to head the Special Investigating Team. The Director General of Police, Jharkhand has submitted in furtherance to the submission made by learned Advocate General that a higher ranking police officer of the State would lead the Special Investigating Team and he has suggested the name of Mr. Sanjay A. Lathkar, IPS, now ADG (Operation), Jharkhand. The Director General of Police, Jharkhand has submitted that he will take all sincere endeavour to get hold of real culprits as also to conduct the investigation in professional manner to surface the conspiracy, if any, in the murder of the judicial officer concerned. He has further submitted that the Special Investigating Team will surface out the entire thing since two vital persons, who were boarding the auto-rickshaw, have already been apprehended and proper investigation in a professional manner would be conducted.”
Most remarkably, the Bench then holds in para 10 that, “This Court, in view of the facts stated hereinabove and taking into consideration the fact that Special Investigating Team has apprehended two persons on 28.07.2021 as also in view of the submission made by the learned Advocate General and Director General of Police that a high rank police officer would lead the Special Investigating Team and the investigation would be conducted in a very professional manner, deems it fit and proper to permit the S.I.T. headed by Mr. S.A.Lathkar, ADG (Operation) to investigate the matter in a professional and fruitful manner. We, hereby, direct the Director General of Police, Jharkhand to immediately issue appropriate order/direction for heading the Special Investigating Team by Mr. Sanjay A. Lathkar, IPS, ADG (Operation), Jharkhand today itself. The newly appointed head of the Special Investigating Team will immediately take over the investigation and conduct the investigation in a professional manner and submit its progress report on 03.08.2021. We make it clear that this Court wants a speedy, fair and professional investigation in the matter, as such, this Court will monitor the progress of the case and that is the reason we are posting this case on 03.08.2021 to look into the progress in the matter to come to the conclusion for continuation of the investigation by the Special Investigating Team or to hand it over to the Central Bureau of Investigation. We further make it clear that apprehending a pawn is meaningless unless the conspiracy is fully uncovered and the mastermind is nabbed. Time would be essence of matter in this investigation. Delay as well as well as any flaw in investigation may eventually affect the trial adversely. We are directing the S.I.T. to submit a report on the next date of hearing. Let an affidavit be filed disclosing as to when the information regarding the occurrence was received by the police and the time when the F.I.R. was registered. Let an information be also given to us as to whether the procedure of post mortem was video-graphed or not? The Director General of Police, Jharkhand will apprise this Court about the graph rate of the crime in the State of Jharkhand after January, 2020.”
Going ahead, the Bench then states in para 11 that, “Let this matter be posted on 03.08.2021 at the top of the list.”
What’s more, the Bench then further adds in para 12 that, “The required affidavits, as directed, shall be filed along with progress of investigation including the copy of the post-mortem report and F.I.R. under sealed cover, on or before the next date of hearing.”
Finally, the Bench then holds in para 13 that, “Let this order be communicated immediately to the learned Advocate General of the State who will ensure its communication to the concerned officers forthwith.” One is quite sure that the truth will definitely come out as to who all are behind this dastardly murder of the great soul named ADJ Uttam Anand. The dogged determination with which Jharkhand High Court is pursuing the case and so also Vikas Singh who is President of Supreme Court Bar Association and is actively taking most keen interest in the case and so also the CJI NV Ramana who himself spoke to Dr Ravi Ranjan who is Chief Justice of Jharkhand High Court and has taken suo motu cognizance of this case and has said that it would want to be appraised of the status of investigation and so it is just not possible that those involved can get away under any circumstances! It needs no Albert Einstein to conclude that our Judges have to be safeguarded from violent attacks because if this is not done then Judges will fear for their personal safety and procrastinate in front of powerful criminals and this we see also to some extent in our country even though many Judges are still upright and one such Judge named Uttam Anand we saw being brutally murdered in broad daylight! This should never have happened but it has happened in Jharkhand! One only fervently hopes that the culprits are quickly brought to justice and all those who are behind it are also brought to book and are not left scot free under any circumstances!
It will not be an exaggeration to say that our whole system has become rotten and it must be addressed in totality. Just band aid solution like punishing only the real killers of ADJ Uttam Anand is not the real solution. All those who are behind it and all such criminals with several serious criminal cases pending against them and yet sitting most comfortably in Parliament and State Assemblies with some even becoming Law Ministers themselves or their juniors like Minister of State must be thrown out right now whether in the Centre or in the States!
This alone will be the best tribute to the departed Judge named Uttam Anand! If politicians don’t act themselves now it is the Supreme Court which must now immediately swing into action and take this as nothing but as a direct assault on the judiciary itself and it is most comforting also to note that the top court as also the Jharkhand High Court have both taken it most seriously! It brooks no more delay anymore! How many more Judges are we waiting to be killed in such callous manner by the ruthless criminals? Truth must come out at the earliest and those behind it deserve to be hanged publicly at the earliest! There cannot be any mercy for them! No way! No question!
Will India get another SC bench for southern states?
The councils stated that they made the demand in light of the problems that persons from the South encounter in conducting cases in Delhi, both in terms of accessibility and cost. A delegation of top officials from the Bar Councils of five southern states – Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, and Kerala – met with Chief Justice of India NV Ramana and Vice President M Venkaiah Naidu to advocate for the establishment of a Supreme Court of India bench in South India. The Bar Councils of Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, and Kerala came together in January this year and overwhelmingly demanded a Supreme Court bench in south India. It was unanimously resolved to request all the State Legislative Assemblies and Legislative councils to pass resolutions and send them to the center seeking a bench of the apex court in South India.
In November 2019, MDMK General Secretary and Rajya Sabha MP Vaico addressed the long-standing demand for the Supreme Court to establish a bench in South India for the convenience of litigants in the Upper House of Parliament. Vaiko had stated that a Supreme Court bench in Chennai will help the supreme court’s backlog of litigation. He said that the high expense of travel to New Delhi was prohibiting marginalized and disadvantaged people in South India from accessing the Supreme Court.
According to Justice Krishna Iyer, there was no rationale for choosing Delhi as the Supreme Court’s exclusive venue. The tyranny of the south by the north was mirrored in the centralised system. Suggested that the Supreme Court be divided into many benches, similar to how several High Courts do it. Several additional proponents of decentralisation note to two major issues that they feel regional benches can address.
The Supreme Court hears only a few matters from the subordinate courts. Due to the Supreme Court’s geographical concentration in Delhi, frequent adjournments have only added two cases to the pre-existing backlog. Aside from the case backlog, the Law Commission’s 229th report also highlighted the logistical challenges that poor litigants confront when travelling all the way to Delhi.
SUGGESTION OF THE LAW COMMISSION
The Law Commission recommended that four regional benches be established to hear matters from each region. Second, the separation would allow a Supreme Constitutional Court to better teach national issues. Litigants frequently ask their High Court attorneys to appear at the Supreme Court, resulting in a cost multiplier in terms of lodging and travel fees. “Adjournment grew prohibitive, costs multiplied,” according to the Law Commission’s findings. The Supreme Court was created to be a constitutional court, not just another Court of Appeal (Justice Bhagwati). The court, on the other hand, is currently inundated with appeals, which consume more time than constitutional issues. Only ten 5-judge constitutional benches have been formed on average per year since the 1960s, compared to 100 per year in the 1960s.
Article 145(3) mandates the use of these benches in all cases involving significant constitutional issues. “The Supreme Court cell seat in Delhi or such other place or places, as the Chief Justice of India may, with the agreement of the president, nominate from time to time,” according to Article 130 of the Indian constitution. As a result, the Supreme Court can convene at any location, not just Delhi. In a 1986 decision, Justice P.N. Bhagwati agreed with this viewpoint.
“If Article 130 is generously interpreted, no constitutional change may be required for the purpose of establishing cassation benches in four regions and a Constitution Bench in Delhi,” the Law Commission stated in its 229th report. The Chief Justice of India’s action, with the president’s consent, may be sufficient. It should also be emphasised that the Chief Justice of India acts as a person designato under Article 130 and is not compelled to consult any other authority or person. Only the president’s approval is required.
Many legal experts believe that establishing regional Supreme Court benches will diminish the court’s constitutional superiority. However, given that the decentralisation is both functional and structural, and that only the Delhi bench deals with constitutional issues, such fears may be unfounded. As a result, establishing regional benches has no bearing on the supreme court’s finality or superiority. The Supreme Court of India has always been a strong institution that has provided exceptional service to the country.
ARE THERE ANY OTHER OPTIONS?
The Congress advocated the creation of a national Court of Appeals (NCA) as an intermediary body between the Supreme Court and India’s 25 high courts to hear regular civil and criminal appeals from the high courts in its Lok Sabha election platform. According to the Congress’s proposal, the NCA will be divided into six regional benches, each with three judges. The Congress has also suggested a constitutional change that would limit the Supreme Court’s authority to issues involving constitutional interpretation and adjudication of cases of national importance.
CONCERNS WITH THIS
Article 130 of the Indian Constitution, which would, in fact, amount to meddling with the Supreme Court’s essential constitutional structure. An amendment like this would strip the Supreme Court of its extraordinary appeals-hearing powers. The Union Minister of Law and Justice stated the same thing in 2014 when denying the aforementioned request.
ATTEMPTS IN THE PAST
The report recommended that the Supreme Court establish four appellate benches in Chennai/Hyderabad, Delhi, Kolkata, and Mumbai. At the time, the report’s proposal was rejected. V Vasanthakumar submitted a petition in 2015 to establish regional Supreme Court benches. The Supreme Court appointed KK Venugopal, the incumbent Attorney General, as an amicus curia in the case. He was in favour of the court being decentralised. However, Mukul Rohatgi, the then-Attorney General, was a vocal opponent of the proposal.
THE PROPOSAL’S DRAWSBACKS
A fragmented court is thought to result in fragmented verdicts. The Supreme Court must unify the law throughout India, and having numerous benches may obstruct this purpose. This is analogous to the current situation, in which multiple High Courts issue conflicting rulings on the same facts. This proposition may possibly be in violation of doctrine’s basic structure. Any division of the code would necessitate a constitutional amendment. Article 136, in particular, may have an impact on basic structure doctrine. Ex-CJI KG Balakrishnan made a point of avoiding dismissing cases, as this would be tantamount to denying someone a hearing. As a result, urgent measures are required to resolve the backlog of cases.
The traceability rule under the IT Rules 2021: A step forward or backward?
The ministry for electronics and IT notified Information Technology (intermediary guidelines and digital media ethics code) rules 2021. These new IT rules supersede the old IT rules of 2011. The new IT rules are more comprehensive in nature and introduces multi facets guidelines which remain dormant in the old IT rules.
The most essential amendment in the new IT rules is rule 4(2) which imposes an obligation on the social media forums providing messaging services to trace the first originator of the message or a social media post which affects the integrity, sovereignty of the country or affects the relations with other countries and anything which incites public order or portrays sexual abuse on women and children. This rule is embodied with a penal punishment for not less than 5 years under IPC 1860 and it does not obligate the intermediary to disclose the contents of the message of the first originator.
The traceability rule has drastically affected the social media platforms like WhatsApp LLC, Facebook and Twitter etc. and makes them aggrieved as the traceability of messages between the first originators and receivers undermines privacy protection policies and infringes the fundamental rights of its users, especially the right to privacy under Article 21 and right to freedom of speech and expression under Article 19(1) of the Indian constitution. Further, the traceability rule also puts an end to the end-to-end encryption of the messages between the first originators and receivers which. The third concern is about the creation of a platform or a portal for the collection and storage of billions of messages exchanged between people on social media platforms.
It must be kept in mind that the fundamental rights as enshrined in Indian Constitution are not absolute in nature and they are curtailed by the reasonable restriction. For example, the right to freedom of speech and expression under Article 19 (1) is not absolute in nature because it is curtailed by the reasonable restriction under Article 19 (2), similarly the right to privacy under Article 21 is also subject to reasonable restrictions which is apparent from the Apex court decisions in Justice K.S. Puttaswamy (Retd.) case, Ritesh Sinha case and Modern Dental College and Research Centre case. Further, rule 4 (1) (a), also ensures the principle of natural justice to the first originator by sending them, a prior intimation notice specifying all the grounds and reasons for the action of the elimination of certain information also gives them a right to reply to that notice.
On a perusal of rule 4(2), it can be ascertained that the life of the citizens of this country is not at risk and the traceability rule is only introduced to catch the culprit who attempts to downgrade India’s reputation in the world, puts the integrity and sovereignty of this country at bay and attempts to degrade the women and children who are a victim of sexual abuse but the traceability principle suffers from one flaw that is the issuance of direction to Social media intermediaries by the Government and this flaw can be cured by amending rule 4 (2) to the extent that the direction as given by Government must bear the judicial approval. Therefore, the new IT rules are a step forward to protect its citizens in an efficacious manner.
Madras High Court order on ‘right to be forgotten’: Analysis and critique
Recently, a Single-Judge Bench of the Hon’ble Madras High Court headed by Hon’ble Mr. Justice N. Anand Venkatesh, had given an important order regarding ‘right to be forgotten’ (‘RTBF’) or right to erasure as a facet of the fundamental ‘right to privacy’, in an anonymous reported writ petition with the citation W.P. (MD). No. 12015 of 2021 (‘High Court Order’). This development follows another remarkable order on RTBF announced previously by the Hon’ble Delhi High Court in Jorawer Singh Mundy @Jorawar Singh Mundy vs. Union of India and Ors., 2021 SCC OnLine Del 2306 (‘Mundy Case’), which has been analysed and critiqued by myself in an earlier issue for The Daily Guardian dated June 1, 2021.
The High Court Order is the first of its kind, as it interestingly completely masks the identity and any personal data/information of the petitioner who is seeking to obtain the RTBF. As recorded by the High Court, the anonymous petitioner had previously faced criminal proceedings of offences for which punishments are prescribed under Section 376 (Punishment for offense of rape) and Section 417 (Punishment for offense of cheating) of the Indian Penal Code (‘IPC’). Eventually, the petitioner was ultimately convicted of the above-mentioned offences by the Trial Court in September 29, 2011. Subsequently, the petitioner had appealed this judgment before the High Court, ultimately resulting in their acquittal from all charges in a judgment delivered on April 30, 2014 (Crl. A. (M.D.). No. 321 of 2011).
However, the petitioner’s name kept getting reflected in the judgment rendered by the High Court and was freely accessible to anyone who typed their name in Google Search. Even though the petitioner was acquitted, the fact is that they have been identified as an accused throughout the previous judgment. Consequently, the petitioner argues that this causes a serious impact on the reputation of the petitioner in the eyes of the society. Therefore, the petitioner wishes for the High Court to grant an order redacting their name from the judgment of the High Court.
HIGH COURT’S ANALYSIS
The High Court Order observes that by virtue of the previous acquittal order, the petitioner could no more be identified as an accused in the eye of the law. Given the fact that the world is under the grips of social media, the background of any person could be assessed by everyone entering into a Google Search and collecting data on the petitioner. Moreover, the High Court observes that there can be no assurance that the data obtained from a Google Search on an individual is authentic.
Yet, as the data is publicly available, it creates a first impression on mind of the one using Google Search. Depending on the data provided, the Google Search can make or mark the characteristic of a person in the eyes of the society. The High Court Order observes that in today’s world, everyone attempts to portray themselves in the best possible way on social media. It is one of the new challenges faced by the world and has everyone grappling to deal with the harbinger of further complexities awaiting mankind.
Moving forward, the High Court Order observes that the Central Government is in the process of finalizing a Data Protection legislation which will effectively protect the data and privacy of a person. It also observes that the legislature has enacted laws protecting the identity of victims of certain crimes who are women and children, due to which their names are not reflected in any order passed by a Court and automatically stand redacted, ensuring that no one is able to identify such a victim.
Subsequently, the High Court Order observes that while the person and privacy of the individual are protected by such laws, no such legal protection has been similarly extended to accused individuals who have been ultimately acquitted from all charges in a criminal case. It is due to this reason that an individual who was acquitted of all charges approached the High Court for a similar remedy, seeking redaction of their name from the previous judgment passed by the High Court.
HIGH COURT’S ORDER
The High Court recorded that the petitioner’s request for seeking a RTBF order could be made only by placing reliance upon Article 21 of the Indian Constitution, which mentions the fundamental right to life and personal liberty. Recalling the Nine-Judge Constitution Bench judgment of the Hon’ble Supreme Court in Justice K.S. Puttaswamy (Retd.) vs. Union of India, (2017) 10 SCC 1 (‘Puttaswamy Judgment’), the High Court stated that the right to privacy has been held to be a fundamental right which is traceable to Article 21 of the Constitution. The High Court Order also observed that a similar case had come up before the Delhi High Court (implicitly referring to the Mundy Case), where the Delhi High Court had granted a RTBF order.
Moving forward, the High Court remarked that if the essence of the Puttaswamy Judgment was applied to the petitioner’s writ seeking RTBF in the present case, “obviously even a person, who was accused of committing an offense and who has been subsequently acquitted from all charges will be entitled for redacting his name from the order passed by the Court in order to protect his Right of Privacy.” Consequently, the High Court held that a prima facie case had been made out by the petitioner, entitling them to redact their name from the previous High Court judgment. However, as such a case had come up for the first instance before the High Court, it also sought to hear the Advocates appearing in the case and members of the Bar in order to understand the various ramifications that the High Court Order may have, before writing a detailed judgment.
There are seven reasons on the basis of which I argue that the High Court Order in the present case is flawed. First, similar to the Mundy Case before the Delhi High Court, the Madras High Court opted to make a prima facie review. However, unlike the former case, the Madras High Court in the present case did not identify competing interests or rights, which would necessitate a balancing of RTBF with such competing interests or rights. Consider for example the ‘fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression’ of citizens and the ‘fundamental right to practice any profession, or to carry any occupation, trade or business’ (which would also cover news reportage and journalistic professions or work by citizens) are important competing interests/rights, which were not mentioned and balanced against RTBF by the High Court Order.
Second, apart from the above-mentioned competing interests/rights, there is a need for courts to have maintenance of transparency, as well as the need for the citizens/general public to have ‘access to information’ (which enables them to exercise some fundamental rights, such as right to freedom of speech and expression). Notably, the High Court Order in its prima facie review did not mention or attempt to balance these competing interests/rights against RTBF.
Third, since criminal proceedings are a part of the public record, it follows that the public officials and Indian citizens should have a right to know if an individual was tried for a grave offence under the IPC or other laws, especially offences such as ‘rape’ or other sexual offences, which was the case in the previous judgment mentioned in the present High Court Order. Importantly, rape or other sexual offences are serious actions against the bodily autonomy, dignity, decisional privacy and the person of an individual. The lack of legal protection to an individual who is acquitted of a rape charge shouldn’t therefore be equated with the protection of masking identities or personal data that legislature has provided to woman or child victims in cases involving serious offences such as those involving rape or other sexual offences.
Fourth, as pointed by myself in a previous article for The Daily Guardian (dated June 1, 2021), the fundamental right to privacy created by the Puttaswamy Judgment does not have a ‘horizontal application’ (i.e. exercise of an individual’s fundamental right against a person or entity other than the State). Consequently, assuming but not admitting that the petitioner’s RTBF exists in the present case, private entities such as Google cannot be ordered by the High Court to enforce RTBF as a facet of fundamental right to privacy. Further, while the ambit of the High Court’s writ jurisdiction under Article 226 of the Constitution is wider than the Supreme Court’s writ jurisdiction under Article 32, the High Court’s powers cannot be used to enforce fundamental rights against non-State actors or private entities which do not perform a ‘public function’.
Fifth, the High Court Order is contrary to the position taken by the Hon’ble Gujarat High Court in Dharmraj Bhanushankar Dave vs. State of Gujarat, S.C.A. No. 1854 of 2015, where the High Court had rejected a plea similar to the present RTBF order. In the Dharmraj Dave case, a permanent restrain on free public exhibition of a judgment and order in which the concerned petitioner was acquitted from criminal proceedings involving ‘murder charges’ was being sought. The contrary stances taken by Madras High Court, as well as the previous Delhi High Court order in the Mundy Case furthers judicial incoherence on RTBF in India.
Sixth, in absence of any law enacted by the Indian Parliament to enable courts to grant RTBF and in light of the ‘horizontal-application’ nature of the fundamental right to privacy as propounded by the Puttaswamy Judgment, private entities such as Google cannot be compelled to redact the identity of individuals from the internet, especially when they are merely linking information or providing location of webpages detailing a reported court order. Lastly, it is pertinent to point out that there is neither any international instrument or treaty entered into by India nor any customary law which imposes any obligations on States to create laws or legislative mechanisms to provide an individual a RTBF or right to erasure of personal data, especially against non-State actors or private entities.
In light of the above-mentioned critique, I have sought to establish that the Madras High Court’s order in the present case is flawed. However, the increasing number of RTBF applications before various Indian High Courts highlight an imminent need for the Parliament to consider enacting a statutory mechanism governing RTBF or passing a constitutional amendment creating a ‘horizontal application’ of fundamental right to privacy, which would enable judicial authorities to adjudicate writ litigations invoking right to privacy under Article 21 of the Constitution to enforce RTBF against private entities such as Google. Nevertheless, it is important to bear in mind that if a RTBF is created through a statutory enactment or a constitutional amendment, much like its parent right to privacy, it cannot be an absolute right. A RTBF should not be extended to enable individuals acquitted from serious offences such as rape or other sexual offences, murder, offences relating to narcotic drugs and psychotropic substances etc.
The increasing number of RTBF applications before various Indian High Courts highlight an imminent need for the Parliament to consider enacting a statutory mechanism governing RTBF or passing a constitutional amendment creating a ‘horizontal application’ of fundamental right to privacy, which would enable judicial authorities to adjudicate writ litigations invoking right to privacy under Article 21 of the Constitution to enforce RTBF against private entities such as Google.
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