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Sealed cover report, stay on order for CBI inquiry — why Calcutta HC judges are at odds

Justice Abhijit Gangopadhyay ordered suspect in ‘scam’ to submit details, but division bench let him to do so in sealed cover. Same bench earlier stayed Gangopadhyay’s orders.

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Kolkata: Two weeks after Chief Justice of India N.V. Ramana and another Supreme Court judge lambasted the use of sealed covers in court, the practice has caused a controversy in the Calcutta High Court. 

Decrying a “double standard”, Justice Abhijit Gangopadhyay has taken strong exception to a division bench’s order allowing a suspect in an alleged scam to submit a report in a sealed cover. He has verbally asked the court’s secretary general to forward his complaint to the CJI as well as the Chief Justice of the Calcutta High Court. 

The judge spoke out against the division bench of Justice Harish Tandon and Justice Rabindranath Samanta Wednesday, while he was hearing a petition on alleged recruitment irregularities in the West Bengal School Education Department. Previously, the same division bench has repeatedly stayed or set aside his orders for a CBI inquiry in the same case.

On 25 March, Justice Gangopadhyay had directed S.P. Sinha, former advisor to the West Bengal School Service Commission, to provide details of his assets. This direction was issued after the judge found “incriminating evidence” that the commission had approved the appointment of those with lower marks, skipping over deserving candidates. 

The commission challenged this order, and the appeal was listed before the division bench of Justices Tandon and Samanta, who declined to stay the single judge’s direction. 

However, the two-judge bench Tuesday did permit Sinha to file the report in a sealed cover in order to protect the details from other litigants. 

Reacting to the division bench’s order the next day, Justice Gangopadhyay said, “I do not know what this court will do with a sealed cover in the proceedings when the hands of this appeal court have been tied. I have been prevented from taking any consequential step on going through the said affidavit of assets.”

Speaking to ThePrint, retired Supreme Court Justice Ashok Ganguly said, “In a proceeding which is contested, when affidavits are presented in a sealed cover, it is unfair for the other party as they would not know what’s in the cover. In cases pertaining to departmental proceedings, or say, the Rafale deal case, information is presented in sealed cover, but overall it does hamper transparency.”

Also read: Calcutta HC lawyers write to CJI, call out TMC MP Kalyan Banerjee’s ‘misconduct’ as advocate

‘I do not know who will be benefited by tieing up the hands of single judge’

In 2016, the West Bengal School Service Commission had set up a panel to recruit close to 13,000 non-teaching staff in government-aided schools. After the panel was dissolved last year, allegations of irregular recruitment surfaced. 

The matter reached the high court last year after a group of candidates who hadn’t received appointment letters moved the court. But ever since then, single-bench orders have been continuously stayed by the division bench of Justices Tandon and Samanta.

On 6 December last year, the same division bench had set aside Justice Gangopadhyay’s order for a CBI inquiry into the alleged irregularities. In February 2022, it stayed another order by him for such a probe.

Although Justice Gangopadhyay did not comment on the previous orders Wednesday, he spoke critically against the order permitting the sealed report. 

“I am sorry to say, a highest degree of double standard [has been] expressed by the appeal court for reasons best known to it. I do not understand who would be benefited by tieing up the hands of the single judge when it has been made clear in order dated 25.03.2022 that this court has found that there are serious illegalities,” he said. 

The judge wondered how, at the time of final the decision, the sealed cover would be appropriately addressed. To deal with its contents, containing details of Sinha’s assets, he needs to take up other steps for adjudication, which the sealed report now prevents him from doing, the judge said. 

ThePrint spoke to a lawyer representing one of the petitioners in the case, but he refused to comment, saying the matter is sub judice.

2 weeks ago, CJI red flagged sealed cover reports in SC

Two weeks ago, a three-judge bench headed by CJI N.V. Ramana criticised sealed cover reports in the Supreme Court while dealing with a criminal appeal filed against the Bihar government. On the same day, Justice D.Y. Chandrachud echoed the CJI’s sentiments while hearing an appeal against Centre’s ban on a Malayalam TV channel.

Reports that are highly sensitive in nature are usually placed before the courts in sealed covers. Not only does this prevent the media from reporting on the contents, it also means that the report is seen only by the concerned judge and not by the petitioners. 

“During investigations, not all information can be revealed, and that is why courts direct sealed cover reports,” said Bharatiya Janata Party leader and lawyer Priyanka Tebriwal, who was one of the petitioners in the matter of the violence in West Bengal after the state assembly elections last year.

(Edited by Rohan Manoj)

Also read: Ruling Left, opposition Congress welcome SC decision staying ban on MediaOne channel


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