In Karthick Theodre vs Registrar General, Madras High Court & Ors. [Writ Petition (Mandamus) No. 12015 of 2021], the Madras High Court held that there can be no recognition of the Right to Be Forgotten when it comes to redaction of Court Records.
INTRODUCTION – FACTS
The world is enslaved by social media and everyone evaluates a person’s background by conducting a Google search and compiling the facts from the search results. However, the facts that are displayed may not always be accurate.
The Petitioner in the present case faced criminal proceedings for an offense under Sections 417(Punishment for cheating) & 376 (Punishment for Rape) of Indian Penal Code (IPC) and was held guilty by the Trial Court. Subsequently, the Petitioner filed an appeal before the High Court of Madras (High Court) and was acquitted in the resultant decision of Crl.A. (MD). No.321 of 2011. While acquitting the accused the Trial Court considered all the applicable laws and facts of the case.
In spite of being cleared by all the charges, the Petitioner’s name appears in the Trial Court’s Judgment and anybody who puts the Petitioner’s name into a Google search is able to access the Judgment. Even though the Petitioner was ultimately acquitted of all charges, the Petitioner’s name appeared as an accused throughout the Trial Court’s Judgment.
The Petitioner contended that, this had a negative influence on the Petitioner’s image in the eyes of the Society, and thus, the Petitioner sought the redaction of his name form the Judgements labelling him as an accused.
ISSUE BEFORE THE HIGH COURT
Whether the name of the Petitioner can be redacted from the Judgement in pursuance of Right to be Forgotten (RTBF) under Article 21 of the Constitution of India?
CONTENTIONS OF THE PARTIES
The Petitioner contended that his Right to Privacy, which is his Fundamental Right has been violated as, upon searching his name on the Google Search, the Judgment appears and can be accessed from anywhere and anyone. This has tarnished the reputation of the Petitioner. In order to prevent any further harm to his reputation, the Petitioner sought his name to be redacted from the Judgement.
The Petitioner further contended that the Right to Privacy is a Fundamental Right and that Right to Privacy also involves the Right to Reputation. The Petitioner relied on the judgment in the case K.S. Puttaswamy v Union of India [Supreme Court, Writ Petition (Civil) No. 494 of 2012)], which made the Right to Privacy a Fundamental Right under Article 21 of the Constitution of India.
The Petitioner also contended that an acquittal shall ensue upon the Petitioner an inherent right to have his name automatically expunged from all records, particularly those in the public domain.
The Respondent contended that harm to a person’s reputation or dignity begins the moment a complaint is filed against him and there is a publication at every stage in the trial and none of the publications can be modified while redaction is being done.
The Respondent further contended that it is the judgment that saves the dignity of the person. the Respondent placed reliance on Rupa Ashok Hurra v. Ashok Hurra [2002 4 SCC 388] wherein, the Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court took the view that Article 32 of the Constitution of India can only be used to ‘enforce the Fundamental Rights guaranteed in Part III’. The Supreme Court also reiterated that it is a well-established legal principle that no judicial order issued by a Superior Court in a judicial proceeding can be said to violate any of the Fundamental Rights guaranteed in Part III.
DECISION AND FINDINGS
The High Court of Madras identified the violation of the Right of Privacy, traceable to Article 21 of the Constitution of India. The High Court in its Judgement mentioned the case Google Spain SL v Agencia Española de Protección de Datos (AEPD) (Case C-131/12)  wherein, Google was ordered to de-list the information from its server under the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). In India, there is no statutory framework governing the Personal Data. Therefore, there is no established rule pertaining to the redaction of the Petitioner’s name from the public domain.
Article 215 of the Constitution of India designates the High Court as a Court of Record. The High Court has the right to keep the original record in perpetuity since it is a Superior Court of Record. The High Court of Madras while rendering the Order stated that, “the sanctity of an original document can only be amended or handled as per the law. No case law has been produced to indicate that this Court’s prerogative jurisdiction under Article 226 extends to direct the modification of its records”.
The High Court further stated that “a good policy must be developed in this respect through specified guidelines. In other words, some basic criteria or parameters must be established; otherwise, such an endeavour will result in complete chaos”.
Thus, the petition was held not to be sustainable in the eyes of the law and was set aside.
The Court, while rendering a decision, needs to have a statutory backing. The High Court of Madras itself is a Court of Record so the documents have to be handled as per the law. There has been no precedence to show the prerogative power under Article 226 of the Constitution which extends to direct alteration of its record.
The criminal justice system in India has not yet reached the point where the Courts order redaction of the names of the individuals in pursuance of RTBF. Thus, there is a need for establishing clear Laws or Regulations pertaining to the scope of an Individual’s Privacy. The enactment of Personal Data Protection Law may aid in dealing with the request of redaction of names of persons who have been acquitted in criminal proceedings.
This may result in clarity with regards to the policies and procedures pertaining to the redaction of names. The enactment of the much anticipated Data Protection Law in India will result in establishing clear guidelines and proper procedures for redaction of the name of the aggrieved party in pursuance of RTBF.
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