Anvar v. Basheer and the new (old) law of electronic evidence

The case

On 18 September 2014, the Supreme Court of India delivered its judgment in the case of Anvar v. P. K. Basheer (Civil Appeal 4226 of 2012) to declare new law in respect of the evidentiary admissibility of the contents of electronic records. In doing so, Justice Kurian Joseph, speaking for a bench that included Chief Justice Rajendra M. Lodha and Justice Rohinton F. Nariman, overruled an earlier Supreme Court judgment in the 1995 case of State (NCT of Delhi) v. Navjot Sandhu alias Afsan Guru (2005) 11 SCC 600, popularly known as the Parliament Attacks case, and re-interpreted the application of sections 63, 65, and 65B of the Indian Evidence Act, 1872 (“Evidence Act”). To appreciate the implications of this judgment, a little background may be required.

The hearsay rule

The Evidence Act was drafted to codify principles of evidence in the common law. Traditionally, a fundamental rule of evidence is that oral evidence may be offered to prove all facts, except documents, provided always that the oral evidence is direct. Oral evidence that is not direct is challenged by the hearsay rule and, unless it is saved by one of the exceptions to the hearsay rule, is inadmissible. In India, this principle is stated in sections 59 and 60 of the Evidence Act.

The hearsay rule is both fundamental and complex; a proper examination would require a lengthy excursus, but a simple explanation should suffice. In the landmark House of Lords decision in R v. Sharp [1988] 1 All ER 65, Lord Havers – the controversial prosecutor who went on to become the Lord Chancellor – described the hearsay rule in these words: “Any assertion other than one made by a person while giving oral evidence in the proceedings is inadmissible as evidence of any fact or opinion asserted.” This definition was applied by courts across the common law world. Section 114 of the (British) Criminal Justice Act, 2003, which modernised British criminal procedure, uses simpler language: “a statement not made in oral evidence in the proceedings.

Hearsay evidence is anything said outside a court by a person absent from a trial, but which is offered by a third person during the trial as evidence. The law excludes hearsay evidence because it is difficult or impossible to determine its truth and accuracy, which is usually achieved through cross examination. Since the person who made the statement and the person to whom it was made cannot be cross examined, any third person’s account of it is excluded. There are a few exceptions to this rule which need no explanation here; they may be left to another post.

Hearsay in documents

The hearsay rule is straightforward in relation to oral evidence but a little less so in relation to documents. As mentioned earlier, oral evidence cannot prove the contents of documents. This is because it would disturb the hearsay rule (since the document is absent, the truth or accuracy of the oral evidence cannot be compared to the document). In order to prove the contents of a document, either primary or secondary evidence must be offered.

Primary evidence of the contents of a document is the document itself [section 62 of the Evidence Act]. The process of compelling the production of a document in court is called ‘discovery’. Upon discovery, a document speaks for itself. Secondary evidence of the contents of a document is, amongst other things, certified copies of that document, copies made by mechanical processes that insure accuracy, and oral accounts of the contents by someone who has seen that document. Section 63 of the Evidence Act lists the secondary evidence that may prove the contents of a document.

Secondary evidence of documentary content is an attempt at reconciling the hearsay rule with the difficulties of securing the discovery of documents. There are many situations where the original document simply cannot be produced for a variety of reasons. Section 65 of the Evidence Act lists the situations in which the original document need not be produced; instead, the secondary evidence listed in section 63 can be used to prove its content. These situations arise when the original document (i) is in hostile possession; (ii) has been stipulated to by the prejudiced party; (iii) is lost or destroyed; (iv) cannot be easily moved, i.e. physically brought to the court; (v) is a public document of the state; (vi) can be proved by certified copies when the law narrowly permits; and (vii) is a collection of several documents.

Electronic documents

As documents came to be digitised, the hearsay rule faced several new challenges. While the law had mostly anticipated primary evidence (i.e. the original document itself) and had created special conditions for secondary evidence, increasing digitisation meant that more and more documents were electronically stored. As a result, the use of secondary evidence of documents increased. In the Anvar case, the Supreme Court noted that “there is a revolution in the way that evidence is produced before the court”.

In India before 2000, electronically stored information was treated as a document and secondary evidence of these electronic ‘documents’ was adduced through printed reproductions or transcripts, the authenticity of which was certified by a competent signatory. The signatory would identify her signature in court and be open to cross examination. This simple procedure met the conditions of both sections 63 and 65 of the Evidence Act. In this manner, Indian courts simply adapted a law drafted over one century earlier in Victorian England. However, as the pace and proliferation of technology expanded, and as the creation and storage of electronic information grew more complex, the law had to change more substantially.

New provisions for electronic records

To bridge the widening gap between law and technology, Parliament enacted the Information Technology Act, 2000 (“IT Act”) [official pdf here] that, amongst other things, created new definitions of “data”, “electronic record”, and “computer”. According to section 2(1)(t) of the IT Act, an electronic record is “data, record or data generated, image or sound stored, received or sent in an electronic form or micro film or computer generated micro fiche” (sic).

The IT Act amended section 59 of the Evidence Act to exclude electronic records from the probative force of oral evidence in the same manner as it excluded documents. This is the re-application of the documentary hearsay rule to electronic records. But, instead of submitting electronic records to the test of secondary evidence – which, for documents, is contained in sections 63 and 65, it inserted two new evidentiary rules for electronic records in the Evidence Act: section 65A and section 65B.

Section 65A of the Evidence Act creates special law for electronic evidence:

65A. Special provisions as to evidence relating to electronic record. – The contents of electronic records may be proved in accordance with the provisions of section 65B.

Section 65A of the Evidence Act performs the same function for electronic records that section 61 does for documentary evidence: it creates a separate procedure, distinct from the simple procedure for oral evidence, to ensure that the adduction of electronic records obeys the hearsay rule. It also secures other interests, such as the authenticity of the technology and the sanctity of the information retrieval procedure. But section 65A is further distinguished because it is a special law that stands apart from the documentary evidence procedure in sections 63 and 65.

Section 65B of the Evidence Act details this special procedure for offering electronic evidence. Sub-section (2) lists the technological conditions upon which a duplicate copy (including a print-out) of an original electronic record may be used: (i) at the time of the creation of the electronic record, the computer that produced it must have been in regular use; (ii) the kind of information contained in the electronic record must have been regularly and ordinarily fed in to the computer; (iii) the computer was operating properly; and, (iv) the duplicate copy must be a reproduction of the original electronic record.

Sub-section (4) of section 65B of the Evidence Act lists additional non-technical qualifying conditions to establish the authenticity of electronic evidence. This provision requires the production of a certificate by a senior person who was responsible for the computer on which the electronic record was created, or is stored. The certificate must uniquely identify the original electronic record, describe the manner of its creation, describe the device that created it, and certify compliance with the technological conditions of sub-section (2) of section 65B.

Non-use of the special provisions

However, the special law and procedure created by sections 65A and 65B of the Evidence Act for electronic evidence were not used. Disappointingly, the cause of this non-use does not involve the law at all. India’s lower judiciary – the third tier of courts, where trials are undertaken – is vastly inept and technologically unsound. With exceptions, trial judges simply do not know the technology the IT Act comprehends. It is easier to carry on treating electronically stored information as documentary evidence. The reasons for this are systemic in India and, I suspect, endemic to poor developing countries. As long as India’s justice system is not modernised and properly funded, Indian trial judges will remain clueless about electronic evidence and the means of ensuring its authenticity.

By bypassing the special law on electronic records, Indian courts have continued to apply the provisions of sections 63 and 65 of the Evidence Act, which pertain to documents, to electronically stored information. Simply put, the courts have basically ignored sections 65A and 65B of the Evidence Act. Curiously, this state of affairs was blessed by the Supreme Court in Navjot Sandhu (the Parliament Attacks case), which was a particularly high-profile appeal from an emotive terrorism trial. On the defence’s challenge to the authenticity and accuracy of certain call data records (CDRs) that the prosecution had relied on, which were purported to be reproductions of the original electronically stored records, a Division Bench of Justice P. Venkatarama Reddi and Justice P. P. Naolekar held:

According to Section 63, secondary evidence means and includes, among other things, “copies made from the original by mechanical processes which in themselves ensure the accuracy of the copy, and copies compared with such copies”. Section 65 enables secondary evidence of the contents of a document to be adduced if the original is of such a nature as not to be easily movable. It is not in dispute that the information contained in the call records is stored in huge servers which cannot be easily moved and produced in the court. That is what the High Court has also observed at para 276. Hence, printouts taken from the computers/servers by mechanical process and certified by a responsible official of the service-providing company can be led into evidence through a witness who can identify the signatures of the certifying officer or otherwise speak to the facts based on his personal knowledge.

Flawed justice and political expediency in wiretap cases

The Supreme Court’s finding in Navjot Sandhu (quoted above) raised uncomfortable questions about the integrity of prosecution evidence, especially in trials related to national security or in high-profile cases of political importance. The state’s investigation of the Parliament Attacks was shoddy with respect to the interception of telephone calls. The Supreme Court’s judgment notes in prs. 148, 153, and 154 that the law and procedure of wiretaps was violated in several ways.

The Evidence Act mandates a special procedure for electronic records precisely because printed copies of such information are vulnerable to manipulation and abuse. This is what the veteran defence counsel, Mr. Shanti Bhushan, pointed out in Navjot Sandhu [see pr. 148] where there were discrepancies in the CDRs led in evidence by the prosecution. Despite these infirmities, which should have created a rebuttable presumption of false evidence [section 192 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860], the Supreme Court stepped in to certify the secondary evidence itself, even though it is not competent to do so. The court did not compare the printed CDRs to the original electronic record. Essentially, the court allowed hearsay evidence. This is exactly the sort of situation that section 65B of the Evidence Act intended to avoid by requiring an impartial certificate under sub-section (4) that also speaks to compliance with the technical requirements of sub-section (2).

When the lack of a proper certificate regarding the authenticity and integrity of the evidence was pointed out, this is what the Supreme Court said in pr. 150:

Irrespective of the compliance of the requirements of Section 65B, which is a provision dealing with admissibility of electronic records, there is no bar to adducing secondary evidence under the other provisions of the Evidence Act, namely, Sections 63 and 65. It may be that the certificate containing the details in sub-section (4) of Section 65B is not filed in the instant case, but that does not mean that secondary evidence cannot be given even if the law permits such evidence to be given in the circumstances mentioned in the relevant provisions, namely, Sections 63 and 65.

In the years that followed, printed versions of CDRs were admitted in evidence if they were certified by an officer of the telephone company under sections 63 and 65 of the Evidence Act. The special procedure of section 65B was ignored. This has led to confusion and counter-claims. For instance, the 2011 case of Amar Singh v. Union of India (2011) 7 SCC 69 saw all the parties, including the state and the telephone company, dispute the authenticity of the printed transcripts of the CDRs, as well as the authorisation itself. Currently, in the case of Ratan Tata v. Union of India Writ Petition (Civil) 398 of 2010, a compact disc (CD) containing intercepted telephone calls was introduced in the Supreme Court without following any of the procedure contained in the Evidence Act.

Returning sanity to electronic record evidence

In 2007, the United States District Court for Maryland handed down a landmark decision in Lorraine v. Markel American Insurance Company 241 FRD 534 (D. Md. 2007) that clarified the rules regarding the discovery of electronically stored information. In American federal courts, the law of evidence is set out in the Federal Rules of Evidence. Lorraine held when electronically stored information is offered as evidence, the following tests need to be affirmed for it to be admissible: (i) is the information relevant; (ii) is it authentic; (iii) is it hearsay; (iv) is it original or, if it is a duplicate, is there admissible secondary evidence to support it; and (v) does its probative value survive the test of unfair prejudice?

In a small way, Anvar does for India what Lorraine did for US federal courts. In Anvar, the Supreme Court unequivocally returned Indian electronic evidence law to the special procedure created under section 65B of the Evidence Act. It did this by applying the maxim generalia specialibus non derogant (“the general does not detract from the specific”), which is a restatement of the principle lex specialis derogat legi generali (“special law repeals general law”). The Supreme Court held that the provisions of sections 65A and 65B of the Evidence Act created special law that overrides the general law of documentary evidence [see pr. 19]:

Proof of electronic record is a special provision introduced by the IT Act amending various provisions under the Evidence Act. The very caption of Section 65Aof the Evidence Act, read with Sections 59 and 65B is sufficient to hold that the special provisions on evidence relating to electronic record shall be governed by the procedure prescribed under Section 65B ofthe Evidence Act. That is a complete code in itself. Being a special law, the general law under Sections 63 and 65 has to yield.

By doing so, it disqualified oral evidence offered to attest secondary documentary evidence [see pr. 17]:

The Evidence Act does not contemplate or permit the proof of an electronic record by oral evidence if requirements under Section 65B of the Evidence Act are not complied with, as the law now stands in India.

The scope for oral evidence is offered later. Once electronic evidence is properly adduced according to section 65B of the Evidence Act, along with the certificate of sub-section (4), the other party may challenge the genuineness of the original electronic record. If the original electronic record is challenged, section 22A of the Evidence Act permits oral evidence as to its genuineness only. Note that section 22A disqualifies oral evidence as to the contents of the electronic record, only the genuineness of the record may be discussed. In this regard, relevant oral evidence as to the genuineness of the record can be offered by the Examiner of Electronic Evidence, an expert witness under section 45A of the Evidence Act who is appointed under section 79A of the IT Act.

The discontents of clear procedure

While Anvar is welcome for straightening out the messy evidentiary practice regarding electronically stored information that Navjot Sandhu had endorsed, it will extract a price from transparency and open government. The portion of Navjot Sandhu that was overruled dealt with wiretaps. In India, the wiretap empowerment is contained in section 5(2) of the Indian Telegraph Act, 1885 (“Telegraph Act”). The Telegraph Act is an inherited colonial law. Section 5(2) of the Telegraph Act was almost exactly duplicated thirteen years after its enactment by section 26 of the Indian Post Office Act, 1898. When the latter was referred to a Select Committee, P. Ananda Charlu – a prominent lawyer, Indian nationalist leader, and one of the original founders of the Indian National Congress in 1885 – criticised its lack of transparency, saying: “a strong and just government must not shrink from daylight”.

Wiretap leaks have become an important means of discovering governmental abuse of power, corruption, and illegality. For instance, the massive fraud enacted by irregularly selling 2G spectrum by the former telecom minister A. Raja, supposedly India’s most expensive corruption scandal, caught the public’s imagination only after taped wiretapped conversations were leaked. Some of these conversations were recorded on to a CD and brought to the Supreme Court’s attention. There is no way that a whistle blower, or a person in possession of electronic evidence, can obtain the certification required by section 65B(4) of the Evidence Act without the state coming to know about it and, presumably, attempting to stop its publication.

Anvar neatly ties up the law of electronic evidence, but it will probably discourage public interest disclosure of inquity.

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