Sealed Covers Are Completely Against Settled Judicial Principles: Supreme Court

The top court has accepted sealed covers submitted by the Narendra Modi government in several important cases such as Bhima Koregaon, Electoral Bonds, the Rafale deal and the Ayodhya title dispute. But it refused to do so in the matter of the One Rank One Pension case, saying, it will be used “only when it is about a source or endangering someone's life.”

New Delhi: The Supreme Court on Monday, March 20, refused to accept a sealed cover note submitted by the Union government in the One Rank One Pension (OROP) arrears case. “I am personally averse to sealed covers. There has to be transparency in court,” said Chief Justice of India (CJI) D.Y. Chandrachud.

“This is about implementing orders, what can be secret here. We need to put an end to this sealed cover practice in SC… this is fundamentally contrary to [the] basic process of fair justice,” he said, according to The Hindu.

The bench of CJI Chandrachud and Justices P.S. Narasimha and J.B. Pardiwala made these remarks while hearing the Indian Ex-Servicemen Movement’s (IESM) plea over the payment of OROP arrears to ex-service personnel.

The court also pointed out that the Union government was duty-bound to comply with the 2022 judgment on the OROP scheme, asking it to clear the dues of 10-11 lakh pensioners by February 28, 2024, in three equal instalments.

The Narendra Modi government has been facing flak from the apex court on the OROP matter in recent hearings. The court has directed the Ministry of Defence (MoD) to file a three-page note specifying the exact amount of arrears due to be paid under the OROP scheme while noting that it is “sad” that four lakh retired defence personnel have already died waiting for their pension.

LiveLaw reports that the CJI told the attorney general, “We want to put an end to the sealed cover business. If Supreme Court follows it, high courts will also follow”. He asked the attorney general to share the note with senior advocate Huzefa Ahmadi (who is appearing for the ex-servicemen).

“Sealed covers are completely against settled judicial principles and it can be resorted to only when it is about a source or endangering someone’s life,” he said, in what could be a setback to a government which has exploited the ‘sealed cover’ route over the past few years to escape scrutiny by making information public.

Sealed cover documents have been accepted by the Supreme Court in several important cases such as challenges to the Rafale deal, Assam’s National Register of Citizens case and electoral bonds case and the Ayodhya title dispute, and the Gujarat police ‘fake’ encounter case, Narendra Modi biopic release case, and the sexual harassment case concerning then CJI Ranjan Gogoi, the Bhima Koregaon case and the anticipatory bail plea for Congress leader P. Chidambaram.

The origin of ‘sealed covers’, has been “traced to service or administrative cases. Official service records and promotion assessments of individual personnel were received in sealed cover in order to avoid harm to the reputation of officers. The court continues to receive confidential documents in sexual assault cases to protect the identity of survivors.”

But late last year, the Supreme Court observed that sealed cover procedure sets a ‘dangerous precedent’ as it makes “the process of adjudication vague and opaque”. The bench of Justices D.Y. Chandrachud and Hima Kohli, in a judgment delivered on October 20, 2022, observed that this procedure affects the functioning of the justice delivery system and causes a serious violation of natural justice.

In March last year, then CJI N.V. Ramana also disapproved of filing submissions in sealed covers.

During the hearing, the top court also directed the Union government to clear the arrears by February 2024. The government should pay OROP dues to retired servicemen aged 70 and above by June 30, 2023, and clear the arrears to six lakh family pensioners and gallantry award winners by April 30, the court said.