“Accused who has been discharged or acquitted honourably has a right to dignity” Karnataka HC directs Registrar to mask party’s name in the Court’s digital records

Karnataka High Court

Karnataka High Court: While considering the instant petition seeking directions for the respondents to remove the petitioner’s name from the digital records maintained by the High Court; the Bench of M. Nagaprasanna, J.*, stated that once the accused gets acquitted or discharged by a competent Court of law, or the High Court quashes their crimes in exercise of its jurisdiction under Section 482 of the CrPC, the shadow of crime, if permitted to continue in place of shadow of dignity on any citizen, it would be travesty of the concept of life under Article 21 of the Constitution. Every citizen born in India, has a right to live with dignity. Considering several case laws on the issue of the privacy and right to be forgotten, the Court stated that even an accused who has been discharged or acquitted honourably by a competent Court of law has a right to live with dignity.

Given the peculiar facts of the case, the Court directed Registrar General of the High Court of Karnataka to mask the name of the petitioner in its digital records pertaining to criminal petition filed by the petitioner in 2021. The Court clarified that mere erasure of the name of the petitioner in the cause title, does not mean that he is entitled to seek such erasure from the police records. “The direction would be only to enable the internet to forget, like the humans forget. If it is allowed to stay on record, the internet will never permit the humans to forget”.

Background: In 2021, a complaint for offences punishable under Sections 354-A and 354-B of Penal Code, 1860 and Section 12 of the POCSO Act was registered against the petitioner for alleged making lewd gestures and sending sexually intimidating text messages to a girl.

After detailed investigation, the case registered against the petitioner was found to be false; however, by then he had already filed a criminal petition before the High Court. No chargesheet was filed against the petitioner and he was eventually discharged by the Court after considering the ‘B’ report filed by the Police.

The instant petition however was brought before the Court the on the ground that when the name of the petitioner is clicked on any search engine, it reveals him to be an accused in the afore-stated crime and a petitioner in abovementioned Criminal Petition. Therefore, the petitioner sought relief vis-a-vis masking of his name in the digital records of the High Court.

Counsel for the petitioner contended that the criminal case registered against him was found to be false and on account of the petitioner’s name being displayed on the website of the High Court, he and his brothers are not getting any job offers because the moment a search is done, it reveals that the petitioner was an accused.

It was further pleaded that the digital records depict the petitioner to be an accused, which has placed him in a worse situation than being an accused. It was submitted that every human being is entitled to live with dignity, therefore the name of the petitioner should be masked in the records of the High Court.

Per contra, the respondents argued that masking of names is permissible only for the victims and not the accused.

Court’s Assessment: Perusing the facts and contentions, the Court noted the petitioner’s discharge and agreed that the name of the petitioner being dubbed as an accused even after discharge, undoubtedly leads to grave prejudice. “He is on a higher pedestal than any of the accused who would get acquitted after a full-blown trial”.

Considering that whether the name of the petitioner should be masked in the digital records of the High Court, the Court pointed out that the law on this point is more dynamic than static. The Court pointed out that right to live with dignity is an important facet of Article 21 of the Constitution. “The dignity does get trampled on account of various acts of a citizen. Those acts are punishable after a due process of law. If the result of due process of law is absolving of any person of alleged guilt, those persons become the ones who would get a right to live with dignity, having no blame against them”.

The Court noted that after the accused gets blame-free by a process of law, he cannot be seen to be carrying the sword of him being accused on his head for all his life. Right to oblivion; right to be forgotten are the principles evolved by the democratic nations, as one being a facet of right to informational privacy.

Relying on K.S. Puttaswamy (Privacy-9J.) v. Union of India, (2017) 10 SCC 1, the Court pointed out that the Supreme Court in this case recognized the right to be forgotten as a basic right under the right to informational privacy and observed that the right of an individual to exercise control over his personal data and, to be able to control his or her own life would encompass his right to control over its existence on the internet. The Supreme Court had emphasised that “Humans forget, but the internet does not forget and does not let humans forget (…) footprints in certain circumstances should not be permitted to remain, as it is an anti-thesis to right to be forgotten”.

Tracing the ongoing evolution of the right to be forgotten, the Court pointed out that Data Protection Bill, 2018 recognizes the right to be forgotten. Likewise, the Personal Data Protection Bill, 2018 also recognizes the right to correction and erasure. Furthermore, the Digital Personal Data Protection Act, 2023, also recognizes the right of erasure of personal data.

The Court also suggested that in circumstances as raised in the instant case, wherein identical demands are made by those accused or victims, as the case would be the Fourth Estate (media) should also consider masking, delisting and deleting their names from their respective digital records and not drive them to the Court seeking such deletion.

[X v. Registrar General High Court of Karnataka, 2024 SCC OnLine Kar 18, decided on 28-02-2024]

*Order by Justice M. Nagaprasanna

Advocates who appeared in this case :

For petitioner- Abhinaya K., Advocate

For respondent- B.V. Vidyulatha, for respondent No.1 and Kiran Kumar, High Court Government Pleader for respondent No. 2

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