Chargesheet not public document; Supreme Court dismisses plea to publish chargesheets filed by police on government websites

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The Supreme Court on Friday dismissed a plea to publish chargesheets filed by the police, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) and the Enforcement Directorate (ED) in public domain and on government websites [Saurav Das v. Union of India and ors].

A bench of Justices MR Shah and CT Ravikumar ruled that putting chargesheets filed in criminal cases by investigating agencies, would be contrary to the scheme envisaged by the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC).

” … on conjoint reading of Section 173 Cr.P.C. and Section 207 Cr.P.C. the Investigating Agency is required to furnish the copies of the report along with the relevant documents to be relied upon by the prosecution to the accused and to none others. Therefore, if the relief as prayed in the present petition is allowed … it may as such violate the rights of the accused as well as the victim and/or even the investigating agency. Putting the FIR on the website cannot be equated with putting the chargesheets along with the relevant documents on the public domain and on the websites of the State Governments.”

The Court said that a chargesheet is not a ‘public document’ and cannot, therefore, be published online.

“Copy of the chargesheet along with the necessary documents cannot be said to be public documents within the definition of Public Documents as per Section 74 of the Evidence Act. As per Section 75 of the Evidence Act all other documents other than the documents mentioned in Section 74 of the Evidence Act are all private documents … reliance placed upon Sections 74 & 76 of the Evidence Act is absolutely misplaced.”

On the petitioner’s argument that under the Section 4 of Right to Information Act, public authorities are supposed to provide suo motu information, the bench said the same was misplaced as well.

“Copies of the chargesheet and the relevant documents along with the charge-sheet do not fall within Section 4(1)(b) of the RTI Act. Under the circumstances also the reliance placed upon Section 4(1)(2) of the RTI Act is also misconceived and misplaced.”

The order was passed on a plea by journalist and transparency activist Saurav Das, filed through advocate Prashant Bhushan.

“Citizens have a legal and constitutional right to proactive disclosure of chargesheets because the right to know is a fundamental right emanating from the Right to Freedom of Speech and Expression enshrined under Article 19(1)(a)…to induce transparency, it is incumbent on the Respondents to make available chargesheets on their websites and enable public access to chargesheets so that the citizenry can stay informed, and the press can faithfully and accurately report on criminal trials,” the plea stated.

The petitioner also flagged the issue of fake news that can arise from selective or inaccurate leaks of chargesheets, leading to media trials.

“Since the entire chargesheet is not available in the public domain, selectively leaked information can be used to form biased opinions by spreading propaganda-laden content, manufactured especially to mislead and confuse a largely social media audience, thereby leading to unsubstantiated claims by interested parties.”

In this regard, the petitioner relied on Section 173 of the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC), which deals with how final reports by investigative agencies are to be handled by a magistrate.

“With the filing of the charge-sheet, the investigation is closed and the defence that investigation might get impeded does not stand at all.”

During the hearing of the matter on January 9, Bhushan had submitted that the Court is only to pass similar directions like was done in the case of Youth Bar Association, where first information reports (FIRs) were directed to be uploaded online within 24 hours.

The Court in its judgment today, however, said that a chargesheet cannot be equated to an FIR since a chargesheet is not a public document under the Indian Evidence Act.

Advocate Ria Yadav also appeared for the petitioner.

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