SC 9 Judge Bench on the Fundamental Right to Privacy – Day I

Following from the five-judge bench’s decision yesterday, a nine-judge bench was constituted today to determine the existence of a fundamental right to privacy. Arguments were advanced on behalf of some of the petitioners today. A background to this hearing, and the larger Aadhaar case can be found here.

Senior counsel appearing for Mr. Mathew Thomas commenced arguments today. He began by arguing that both M.P. Sharma v. Satish Chandra (MP Sharma) and Kharak Singh v. State of Punjab (Kharak Singh) were decided when AK Gopalan v. State of Madras (Gopalan) held the field. The view adopted in AK Gopalan was that different fundamental rights operated in individual silos and were to be read separately. This decision was overruled by an eleven-judge bench in R. C. Cooper v. Union of India (RC Cooper).

It was argued that neither of the two decisions in question could be considered good law with respect to their interpretation of fundamental rights, given that the basis for these judgments i.e. AK Gopalan was overruled.

Further, the observation in MP Sharma that there is no right to privacy within Article 20(3) of the Constitution could not extinguish a general right to privacy. With respect to Kharak Singh, it was pointed out that the minority view in the case applied had the correct test and consequently, liberty was not a residuary expression and inherently contemplated privacy.

It was argued that the concepts of privacy and liberty could not be separated. If life and liberty were considered inalienable, so was privacy, as the former could not exist without the latter. Characterising the American jurisprudence on privacy as being rooted in the concept of liberty, and the continental understanding emerging from dignity, he argued that the Preamble to the Indian Constitution considered both to be inalienable values. He contended that privacy was the essence of liberty, and that human development and exercising choice required internal privacy.

It was pointed out that pursuant to the Court’s decision in Maneka Gandhi v. Union of India (Maneka Gandhi), Articles 14, 19 and 21 had to be read together. These rights, he argued, could only exist under a limited government. He pointed out that equal protection of laws under Article 14 would also protect liberty. Similarly, the exercise of choice secured under Article 19 would also require liberty.

On being posed a question from Justice Bobde regarding the facets and contours of the right to privacy, the senior counsel argued that privacy had multiple dimensions. While the Supreme Court had recognised four of these in Gobind v. State of Madhya Pradesh – spatial privacy, informational privacy, decisional autonomy and full development of personality, these were not exhaustive.

The bench also asked if the constitutional right to privacy was broader than the common law right, to which the counsel responded in the affirmative. Justice Chandrachud sought to know if the fundamental right to privacy was applicable horizontally, and if the state had an obligation to legislate to protect this right. This too, was answered in the affirmative.

Senior counsel Soli Sorabjee, who was also appearing for one of the petitioners, argued briefly that the absence of an express right to privacy under Part III of the Constitution did not imply that it did not exist.  He contended that the right to privacy could be deduced from other existing right just as the freedom of the press has been deduced from Article 19(1)(a).

Next, arguments were made by the senior counsel on behalf of S.G. Vombatkere. He argued that there was an unbroken like of decisions recognising a right to privacy for over forty years, and contended that this was an occasion to affirm, and not regress from established precedent.

Further, he clarified that the right to privacy cannot be defined with any specificity. Being multi faceted, it is not capable of an exhaustive definition and therefore must be developed on a case-by-case basis.

He also cited I R. Coelho v. State of Tamil Nadu to emphasize that the Constitution is a living document and the law must continue to evolve in accordance with modern realities.

It was argued that the right to privacy emanates from a joint reading of Articles 14, 19 and 21. He also emphasised that the right to privacy was enshrined under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights as well as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, thereby forming a part of India’s international obligations. He also brought to the Court’s notice that the UN had recently appointed a Special Rapporteur on Privacy and published a preliminary report on Privacy in the Digital Age, signifying that privacy is a contemporary international concern. The Chief Justice remarked that the report acknowledges privacy as a basic human right. Justice Chandrachud questioned the counsel regarding data protection being distinct from privacy. He opined that data protection must be regulated by law, and that privacy could not be considered absolute. At this stage the counsel clarified that he was not contending that the right to privacy was absolute, but merely that it be developed on a case by case basis.

He argued, that what was sought was that privacy be recognised as a fundamental right. Relegating it to the status of a mere common law right would leave it vulnerable to state action and legislation. This hierarchy, in the counsel’s opinion, was an essential limitation on the state’s power.

Moving on, he argued that the fact that the Supreme Court had, over time, articulated over thirty unenumerated rights under Article 21 also went to signify that privacy is a fundamental right.

He reiterated that the majority view in Kharak Singh had been overruled, as made evident in Satwant Singh Sawhney v. D. Ramarathnam, RC Cooper as well as Maneka Gandhi. Tracing the development of the jurisprudence on fundamental rights, he explained RC Cooper had overturned the prevailing view since Gopalan (that fundamental rights operated in distinct silos). In 1976, Maneka Gandhi expressly overruled the majority view in Kharak Singh. In 2014, the Supreme Court reiterated in Mohamad Arif v. The Registrar, Supreme Court and Ors that pursuant to RC Cooper, the minority view in Kharak Singh was good law. Read together, it was contended that the statements in the majority decision of Kharak Singh on the absence of an explicit fundamental right to privacy under the Constitution could pose no bar.

With respect to MP Sharma, it was pointed out that the case operated in a completely distinct area i.e. Article 20(3) of the Constitution which provides that “no person accused of any offence shall be compelled to be a witness against himself”. The contention of the counsel was that privacy emanated from Articles 14, 19 and 21 and thus the observation in MP Sharma could not be considered an obstacle. He pointed out that the Supreme Court had expressly considered MP Sharma in the 2010 decision Selvi v. State of Karnataka and upheld the right to privacy.

He concluded by stating that the mark of a civilisation can be seen in how it treats personal privacy. Without privacy, all rights would be denuded of their vitality.

The senior counsel arguing on behalf of S. Raju began his submissions by stating that both MP Sharma and Kharak Singh only contained one stray sentence on the right to privacy. Whether privacy was a fundamental right was never a question before the Court in either of these cases. On reading relevant extracts from MP Sharma, Nariman J. observed that the 4th Amendment of the US Constitution, (which deals with unreasonable search and seizures, and was sought to be included within our Constitutional scheme), could never have been imported into Article 20(3). Pointing out that 20(3) was along the lines of the 5th Amendment under the American Constitution (which deals with self-incrimination among other things), he stated that the result would have been an anomalous situation as the 5th Amendment could never have been imported into the 4th Amendment.

The senior counsel continued his arguments citing several American cases, starting with the dissenting judgment of Justice Louis Brandeis in Olmstead vs. United States recognizing a right to be let alone, and dealing with the landmark cases of Griswold v. Connecticut and Roe v. Wade to explain how privacy had been developed from the 4th, 9th as well as the 14th Amendment(s).

He also read from Kharak Singh, arguing that with regard to the specific question on whether the judgments in Kharak Singh and MP Sharma still hold – it is important to note that the ratio in both of these cases did not specifically provide that there is no right to privacy. During the course of these readings, it was also pointed out by the bench that even the majority in Kharak Singh seemed to have implicitly recognized a right to privacy, without explicitly stating so. The senior counsel argued that it is anachronistic and paradoxical that after having recognised over thirty different rights under Article 21, the status of the right to privacy was in doubt. He also stated that while the right to privacy would fall within the ambit of Article 21, it would also need to be developed, and may be grounded in Articles 14, or 19, depending upon the issue being discussed.

Before the bench rose, it posed a few pertinent questions to the counsel. Justice Chandrachud pointed out that in several decisions, such as R. Rajagopal v. State of Tamil Nadu and Mr. X v. Hospital Z , the Court had applied the right to privacy horizontally. He sought a clarification regarding the applicability of a fundamental right to privacy against non-state actors.

Justice Nariman and the Chief Justice asked the counsel to clarify the contours of a right to privacy – the definition of the right, the restrictions on the right, and parameters of challenge for an action on privacy, if the right were to be grounded in Articles 14, 19 and 21. Another question that was posed to the counsel was whether the right to privacy would be a horizontal right, and the state would have any responsibility to take affirmative action to protect this right.

The counsels for the petitioners stated that the right would need to be developed on a case to case basis, providing not only for what is, but also for what may be. The counsel and the bench discussed the possibility of providing for various options for defining the right –simply stating that there is a right, and leaving it open to interpretation, or providing illustrations of the facets of the right to privacy.

In response to the questions on the parameters for challenges against a violation of this right, the counsel stated referred to the tests already in place to determine violations of rights under Articles 14, 19 or 21, or any other article that the right to privacy maybe grounded in depending upon the case being discussed.

The petitioners are expected to conclude their submissions within the first half tomorrow, after which the Union of India will put forth its case.

Disclosure: The author assisted the petitioners’ (S.G. Vombatkere) counsel.

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2 thoughts on “SC 9 Judge Bench on the Fundamental Right to Privacy – Day I

  1. Pingback: SC 9 Judge Bench on the Fundamental Right to Privacy – Day II [Part I] | The CCG Blog

  2. Pingback: SC 9 Judge Bench on the Fundamental Right to Privacy – Day II [Part II] | The CCG Blog

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