‘Riding an unruly horse’: HC rejects plea to redact name of man acquitted of rape
CHENNAI: The Madras high court on Tuesday turned down a request from a man acquitted in a rape case to redact his name from court judgments, underlining that it would be appropriate to wait for the proposed data protection law that could provide an objective criterion for redaction of names of acquitted persons.
“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 bench of justice Anand Venkatesh said in its order on the man’s right to be forgotten.
The petitioner, previously an accused in a case of cheating and rape on the false pretext of marriage, was acquitted by the court. After the verdict, the man approached the high court to seek orders to remove his name.
During previous hearings, justice Venkatesh had observed that the accused, prima facie, are entitled to have their name redacted from judicial orders and verdicts, particularly the ones that are easily accessible by a simple Google search.
The court consulted the advocates association and members of the bar to gauge the ramifications at a marathon five-hour-long hearing on July 28.
Subsequently, the court concluded that implementation was going to be an issue if a generalised order is passed and directions were issued. On Tuesday, the court finally dismissed the petition, observing that the petitioner await the enactment of a data protection law that may spell out the criteria to be followed.
“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 reasoned.
Justice Venkatesh also observed the failings of the criminal justice system in India such as “slipshod investigation, dishonest witnesses and lack of an effective witness protection system” due to which the court sometimes “helplessly” pass orders of acquittals.
“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.”
There are issues that would need to be figured. For instance, when can a court order redacting a person’s name. When the first verdict by the trial court is out or when the case goes to an appellate court or the revisional stage. “And how should it be done in cases which have already concluded and become a part of the record,” the court questioned.
Unlike the United States, where through a court order there can be complete destruction of the entire records of an accused person after their acquittal and they can start their life afresh, such a system doesn’t exist in India, the court said.
Only rules under The Juvenile Justice [Care and Protection of Children] Act, 2015 provides for the complete destruction of the entire criminal record which ultimately removes the person from their identity as an accused person.
During the course of deliberation, various foreign judgments, Shakespear’s Othello related to the issue of privacy, reputation were cited. The court also noted a recent interim order of the Delhi high court that directed websites concerned to redact the name of the petitioner.
“This court felt that there are certain finer aspects which have to be considered failing which may open up flood gates,” justice Venkatesh said.
“There must be a proper policy formulated in this regard by means of specific rules... failing which, such an exercise will lead to utter confusion.”