Thursday, February 9, 2017

Electronic Evidence and the Commercial Courts Act 2015

Electronic evidence and Sections 65-A and 65-B of the Indian Evidence Act 1872 [Evidence Act] were the subject of a four-part series on the Blog (see, here, for the first of these). I try and follow up on developments in the law to discuss them here and was pleasantly surprised when I stumbled upon an interesting anomaly that has crept in today, which I discuss here.

Section 65-B Certificates 
Recall, that Sections 65-A and 65-B of the Evidence Act provide a special procedure for determining the admissibility of secondary electronic evidence in proceedings. These were inserted in the Evidence Act through the Information Technology Act 2000.  Section 65-B postulates that in order to treat the electronic material as evidence, certain preliminary issues need to be resolved. Such as, authenticity of the data-source, proper functioning of data-extraction methods etc. The provision allowed for this information to be furnished via a Certificate. It does not require that the Certificate be accompanied by an affidavit, since it is regular for the person making the certificate to be examined as a witness during the proceedings.

The Supreme Court in 2014 through the decision in Anvar PV v PK Basheer [(2014) 10 SCC 473] held that a Section 65-B Certificate was mandatory to prove electronic material. While I continue to stick by my argument that the decision is patently incorrect, that discussion is now purely academic since the decision has quickly been adopted into the processes of law. Today, then, electronic material such as emails is filed along with a Certificate under Section 65-B, where the maker of that material certifies its correctness etc. This Certificate does not contain an affidavit. It is exhibited in evidence, and the maker regularly questioned.    

Commercial Courts Act, 2015
Enter the Commercial Courts Act, 2015 [CCA]. This was the direct result of the Report No. 253 of the Law Commission of India and was announced to some fanfare. The CCA received Presidential Assent on 31.12.2015, but has been made retrospectively operative since 23.10.2015. This Act creates a special procedure for cases involving a 'commercial dispute' [Section 2(c)] that are above a specified monetary value that each State must fix [Section 6]. Rather than create a new procedure, the Legislature, through the CCA, made wholesale amendments to the Civil Procedure Code 1908 [CPC] for cases involving commercial disputes. We are concerned with the amendments to Order XI CPC, pertaining to disclosure, discovery and inspection of documents. 

The new procedure created by the CCA requires a Declaration on Oath by the plaintiff that "all documents in the power, possession, control or custody of the plaintiff, pertaining to the facts and circumstances of the proceedings initiated by him have been disclosed ... and that the plaintiff does not have any other documents in his power, possession, control or custody." [Order XI, Rule 1(3)]. The Law Commission Report referred to above cited improvements in the procedural law on the point of disclosure, and I guess this is what they went for. However, I found no discussion at all for the new Rule 6 in Order XI, which deals with Electronic Evidence and has been extracted in full below:
(1) In case of disclosures and inspection of Electronic Records (as defined in the Information Technology Act, 2000), furnishing of printouts shall be sufficient compliance of the above provisions. 
(2) At the discretion of the parties or where required (when parties wish to rely on audio or video content), copies of electronic records may be furnished in electronic form either in addition to or in lieu of printouts. 
(3) Where Electronic Records form part of documents disclosed, the declaration on oath to be filed by a party shall specify
(a) the parties to such Electronic Record;
(b) the manner in which such electronic record was produced and by whom;
(c) the dates and time of preparation or storage or issuance or receipt of each such electronic record;
(d) the source of such electronic record and date and time when the electronic record was printed;
(e) in case of email ids, details of ownership, custody and access to such email ids;
(f) in case of documents stored on a computer or computer resource (including on external servers or cloud), details of ownership, custody and access to such data on the computer or computer resource;
(g) deponent’s knowledge of contents and correctness of contents;
(h) whether the computer or computer resource used for preparing or receiving or storing such document or data was functioning properly or in case of malfunction that such malfunction did not affect the contents of the document stored;
(i) that the printout or copy furnished was taken from the original computer or computer resource. 
(4) The parties relying on printouts or copy in electronic form, of any electronic records, shall not be required to give inspection of electronic records, provided a declaration is made by such party that each such copy, which has been produced, has been made from the original electronic record. 
(5) The Court may give directions for admissibility of Electronic Records at any stage of the proceedings. 
(6) Any party may seek directions from the Court and the Court may of its motion issue directions for submission of further proof of any electronic record including metadata or logs before admission of such electronic record.
Does Rule 6 render 65-B Certificates Redundant for the CCA? 
The Declaration on Oath (i.e. a statement on affidavit) must contain all the information mentioned in Rule 6(3) for it to be accepted. While this may seem to be invoking the spirit of Section 65-B, it makes no mention of the provision whatsoever. It would be interesting, then, to compare Rule 6(3) with the requirements specified by Section 65-B that are found in the Certificate. It becomes clear that the procedure under the CCA is more exacting than the ordinary procedure under Section 65-B. Not only does the Section 65-B Certificate warrant lesser information, but it is also not on oath. 

So does Rule 6(3) render it absolutely redundant to secure a separate Certificate under Section 65-B for cases under the CCA? To my mind it does, and the CCA allows for this kind of an override  as well [Section 21]. I am told however that Section 65-B Certificates are still filed in cases before Commercial Courts together with this information that the new Rule 6 requires. That this is creating confusion is made apparent upon reading the order of a Single Judge of the Delhi High Court in Eli Lilly [CS (Comm) 1472/2016, order dated 09.11.2016]. Repeatedly, an affidavit under Section 65-B is referred to, or the certificate is constantly treated as being an alternative word for affidavit: "counsel for the plaintiff states that such a certificate/affidavit was not filed ... Such certificate/affidavit under Section 65-B" and so on. 

Endlaw, J. in passing refers to how the claims of the counsel ignored clear precedent perhaps because it pertained to criminal cases without considering that the Evidence Act applies to both civil and criminal proceedings equally (referring to the Division Bench decision of the Delhi High Court in Kundan Singh). I think he may be on to something bigger. It is no coincidence that the Evidence Act has rarely been amended through the vehicle of procedural law through time. Legislatures have been careful to maintain the equal treatment it metes out to both civil and criminal proceedings in the context of questions of admissibility and proof. So, while the standard of proof might have been different in civil and criminal cases (balance of probabilities versus proof beyond reasonable doubt), the Evidence Act ensured that how documents and material became evidence was common unless mentioned otherwise. The CCA has ignored that precept, and has created a situation where commercial cases are being subjected to stricter rules of proof than other cases. It would be ideal for this to be addressed by a bench of higher strength, or the Supreme Court, to put the confusion to rest before any egregious consequences ensue.

(hat tip to Suveni Bhagat, Viraj Parikh, and Aditya Vikram Singh)

1 comment:

  1. Sekhri, what is the section 21 you refer to in second last paragraph?