Author:Komal Bhati, 2nd year student at ICFAI Law School, Hyderabad.
Citation: AIR 2006 SC 2820
Date of Judgement: 8th August 2006
Original Copy: View
Bench: S. B. Sinha, Dalveer Bhandari
Issues in Question:
- Depending upon the situational changes how far can a statutory provision be interpreted in new ways?
Background of the Case:
- In this case, a raid was conducted in the respondent’s premises, who within the meaning of the Punjab General Sales Tax, 1948 stands to be a dealer. The raid was conducted by the officers from the Sales Tax Department of the State of Punjab. During the raid, the officers seized a large number of books and documents such as registers and cashbook ledger. All these files were stored on a hard disk.
- The power for the seizure of documents exercised by the authorities was granted under Sec 14 of the Punjab General Sales Tax, 1948. The section talks about Production and Inspection of Books, Documents and Accounts. According to Sec 14 (3) of the said Act, the officer shall immediately provide a receipt for seizing the documents, books, registers and accounts. It also mentions the periods within which the files should be returned, which is 10 days for accounts, register, book or documents and 60 days in any other case.
- The respondent was asked to put in an appearance several times by the officers of the Sales Tax Department so as to enable themselves to verify the contents in the hard disk. But the respondent did not cooperate resulting in the delay in the return of the documents and books.
- The respondent then filed a writ petition and prayed the court to issue a writ in/of the nature of mandamus asking to direct the officers to return the seized documents, books, accounts and hard disk (in which all of these files were stored). The court applied the principle of literal interpretation and mandamus was issued, along with that Rs. 2,500 was imposed in each case. It was also stated that the costs would not be paid by the State exchequer but by the officers who withheld the accounts, documents etc.
- The court observes that the said Act was enacted in 1948 and since then there has been a lot of development in information technologies with the emergence of the internet and other devices. The technologies also brought with them problems in the field of law that could not have been foreseen earlier, one such example would be determining the statutory liabilities in this case. The difficulties faced by the officers in this case to tackle the new circumstance could also not have been foreseen. Even though the amendments in the Information Technology Act, 2000 tried to include different types of cybercrimes but could not deal with all the problems that came in front of the officers.
- And even though there were amendments made to Sec 14 of the said Act, the court is of the opinion that creative interpretation should be allowed owing to the circumstances. To execute the provisions of Sec 14 a lot of difficulties must have arisen for the officers. After the examination and taking copies of the documents and files, it is mandatory for the officers to return these files to the dealer within a period of sixty days. But in this case, it was required to make a copy of the files on the hard disk and also to get the copy verified, the respondents were asked to verify the copy but they failed to do it. In order to attach the provisions of sub-section (3) of Sec 14, the respondent’s active cooperation was required.
- When it comes to the hard disk, complying with the literal interpretation of the provision was impossible. It can be said that the Respondent’s non-cooperation did not prevent the officers from making copies of the files from the hard disk or getting a hard copy of the files so as to affix it with the official seal and signatures. But the High court did notice that the officers faced this problem for the first time and they might have failed to lay down their own procedure.
- To avoid the complications that arose regarding the seizure of the hard disk, according to the respondent’s offer their representative should make themselves available while obtaining the respondent’s signature on the receipt or on the hard disk copies.
- The court decided to set aside the previous judgement, according to which the officers were asked to pay the costs from their pockets and appeal was allowed to the extent discussed.
- The development in informational technology has been fast-paced since the time of its inception. The internet and other technologies have revolutionised each and every part of your life in an unexpected manner. One such aspect of your life is law, which is equally impacted by these developments. This case manages to bring the question into a discussion with just an issue of the hard disk, which in 2021 is already outdated. Today, we also have the option to store the information virtually in cloud storage allowing us to access our files from any place and any device, which could allow the offender to modify the files in the devices that may be seized.
- Therefore, it is very important not just for ourselves but for the various sectors of society to adapt and develop according to these fast-paced technological developments. The said Act, in this case, was enacted in 1948, the sector of information technology was not even known then. One can only imagine the developments that have happened since then in this sector, making it crucial for the lawmakers and executors to adapt and work while keeping that in mind and the present case is the example for it, the judges gave the verdict by being cognizant regarding the aforesaid issue and allowed different interpretations of the provision in the discussion. It was stated by the court that even if amendments have been made to cope with the IT developments, procedural laws should be understood as ongoing statutes like the constitution and different or creative interpretations should be allowed according to the situation.