- How to prove an email in a court case ?;
- What is the manner in which a voice/video recording is to be led before the court and proved in evidence ?;
- How to prove electronically maintained Bank Statements ?;
- How to prove a Facebook, Twitter post, a WhatsApp message or an SMS ?;
- The proof of Call Detail Records in a court case ?
These are some questions that the courts are faced today, almost on an everyday basis. The use of computers is all-pervasive now. Almost all data is digital these days and most communication is exchanged electronically through SMS,Email, Whatsapp, Facebook, Twitter etc. In Civil as well as Criminal Cases, the courts are frequently called upon to rule on whether ‘electronic evidence is admissible or not’. Practice has shown that this is by no means an easy question to answer.
This write-up is an attempt to simplify the complex law relating to admissibility of electronic evidence and to touch briefly upon some of the most pressing issues, as discussed above.
- The First principles of law
First, a few words about how the law embraced the IT revolution. The IT Act, 2000 has given sanctity to electronic records and the definition of ‘evidence’ in the Evidence Act, has been expanded to include electronic records. Data in electronic form has to be stored and preserved. An electronic record, simply put, is information/data recorded in an electronic form. Therefore, data recorded on a hard drive, pen drive, CD, DVD, or even the Internet qualifies as ‘electronic record’. An image file on your pen drive, or a photo clicked on your phone or a WhatsApp message on your phone memory or service provider’s server are all ‘electronic records’.
The original device in such a case which produced the electronic record is ‘primary evidence’. For eg : The sound recorder/CCTV Camera and attached hard disk used to record a video/audio clip are primary evidence of its contents. Another example may be huge servers where data is created and stored. Such servers are what qualifies as ‘primary evidence’. The general rule of law of evidence is that when primary evidence is available, secondary evidence is not admissible. However, the same principle cannot be strictly applied in cases of electronic records. Large Servers/Original devices cannot be expected to be brought before the court in each case. Therefore, secondary evidence in the form of a output such as Printout or soft copy in the form of CD/DVD etc is admissible in a court of law, provided certain conditions are met.
These conditions are laid down with a view to ensure that the secondary evidence is true and accurate representation of the original electronic record and has not been tampered with, in any manner.
- What is Section 65B of the Evidence Act ?
Section 65-B of Indian Evidence Act, simply put, lays down the conditions and procedure of proof of an electronic record in a court of law. Section 65B is important insofar as it recognises that the original primary evidence of electronic record cannot be expected to be brought before the court and even if it is, the same being in binary form (Binary is the language that the computer/machine understands – where everything is stored in a string of zeros and ones!) the same cannot be understood by the court. The net effect of Section 65B is that the output in the form of a printout or data copied on CD/DVD etc produced by the computer is rendered admissible in the court, provided certain conditions are met. This is the import of Section 65B(1).
Section 65B(2) lays down certain conditions relating to integrity of the data. These conditions are there to ensure that :
a) there has been no unauthorised access to the data in question;
b) the computer was functioning properly and therefore the reproduction of data is accurate and genuine.
3. Certificate u/s 65B of the Evidence Act : Who is to issue, and what is that it is supposed to contain ?
The output of a electronic record, in order to be admissible in a court of law, has to be filed along with a certificate u/s 65B(4) of the Evidence Act. Such a certificate has to be issued by a person occupying responsible position with respect to the computer from which the data is produced. The certificate has to certify the conditions laid down in S. 65B(2) relating to integrity of data and computer system; the manner of production of the output of electronic record, identity and particulars of device used (including the original device). The entire idea behind the certificate is to ensure, once again, integrity of source, authenticity of data, so that the court can place reliance on it. This is important since electronic data is more prone to tampering and alteration.
Questions such as : How the certificate is to be prepared, who is to issue the certificate, and the exact contents of the certificate, will depend on the specific nature of electronic record that is sought to be proved. For instance : A image taken with the mobile phone camera, will be first copied onto the laptop and thereafter printed out. In such a case, the certificate will have to mention the process of transfer and printing so as to prove ‘integrity in the chain of movement’ and will have to be prepared and given by the operator of the mobile phone and the laptop. It has to compulsorily conform to the conditions in S.65B(2) & (4). It has to identify the original mobile phone and the other devices used in preparing the output. In such cases, preserving the original is also extremely necessary. Computer Forensic Experts advise the retention/preservation of the original in a dust/transmission resistant environment, making a clone copy of the contents therein (after using devices such as write-blocker to ensure no data is written onto the device during access and process of copying), and access to the document through the clone/mirror copy only. Accessing the data on the device itself may make the authenticity/integrity of the document suspect and may make it open to challenge. Taking the ‘Hash Value’ of the device at the time of seizure (Simply put, a Hash Value is a specific string of numbers that each file produces; any change in the file, even a space or a comma, leads to a total change of hash value; this algorithm is used to preserve the document in original shape and ensure no tampering takes place). Taking the hash value at the time of seizure of electronic evidence and thereafter, at the time of evidence before the court convinces the court as to non-tampering with the device. (The different forensic practices used to guarantee evidentiary value, in greater details, will be discussed in a different post of ours).
Things get slightly more complicated when information over the internet is sought to be proved. One view is that the person taking the printout from a website/email – is to give the certificate; the other view is that the person incharge and responsible for the server where the information resides is to give the certificate. The latter option spells great trouble and will render most electronic information extremely difficult to be proved as most servers are located in distant locations, spread over a large geographical area ,under managerial control of different personnel, and most importantly outside the jurisdiction of our courts.
The question on as to who is to issue the certificate is also important, and assumes even greater importance in case of proof of Call Detail Records etc.
By virtue of decision of Delhi High Court in Kundan Singh Vs. The State [MANU/DE/3674/2015], the doctrine of hearsay, in its application to proof of electronic evidence, has been limited a great deal. The court has recognised the fact that in cases of huge information contained across various servers, which is sought to be proved years later, it may not be possible to procure the evidence/certificate issued by persons incharge of the computer system at that time. In such cases, people who have subsequently taken over charge of such computers can issue certificate u/s 65B Indian Evidence Act. Evidence in such cases cannot be eschewed merely on the ground of hearsay. Therefore, what follows is that a person holding a responsible official position in relation to the operation of the relevant device/activities can give a certificate u/s 65B in relation to CCTV Records/CDR Etc. This flows from the fact that the fact that system was working properly at a relevant time is something that can be gauged from system logs, and is not something that is strictly within personal knowledge of one individual.
Another peculiar situation that may be visualised is when the output of an electronic record is seized from the Accused; for eg, at the time of arrest, the accused is made to take a printout from his email account; whether in such a case it is the accused who can be made to issue the certificate; and if yes, whether the same amounts to ‘self incrimination’ and resultantly, runs foul of Article 20(3) of the Constitution. Conversely, can one also say that this printout is a ‘fact discovered’ for the purpose of Section 27 of the Evidence Act, and therefore, admissible in evidence even de hors Section 65B of the Evidence Act. The jury is out on this one, and a authoritative decision of the court is awaited. Till then, there are arguments for and against each position.
- Is the certificate u/s 65B(4) of Evidence Act mandatory for reception of electronic evidence ?
In this regard, the earlier view_ was that compliance with S.65B of the Evidence Act is not an absolute requirement of law and Secondary evidence, in terms of Section 65 IEA can still be led in proof of a electronic record. However, the Supreme Court in ANVAR P.V. VS. P.K. BASHEER AND OTHERS [MANU/SC/0834/2014] has ruled that a certificate u/s 65B is compulsory for admission of electronic evidence and over ruled Navjot Sandhu(supra) to that extent. The Court observed that Section 65B of the Evidence Act begins with a ‘non-obstante clause’ and would override the general law on secondary evidence, as laid down under Section 63 and 65 of the Evidence Act. Section 65B is a special provision concerning proof of electronic records. The very caption of S.65A read with S. 59 and 65B is sufficient to hold that the special provisions on evidence relating to electronic record shall be governed by the procedure prescribed u/s 65B of the IEA, 1872. This is a complete code in itself and being a special law, the general law under sections 63 and 65 has to yield. (Generalia specialibus non derogant : special law will always prevail over the general law.) Therefore, Section 63 and Section 65 of the Evidence Act have no application to the secondary evidence of the electronic evidence and same shall be wholly governed by the Section 65A and 65B of the Evidence Act. No expert evidence/oral evidence can be led in absence of the certificate. The case concerned proof of video footage relating to an election malpractice matter. The court held that the output in the form of CD/DVD/Pen drive was inadmissible in absence of the certificate; however, if the original recorder/hard drive attached to CCTV is led in evidence, the same can be received even without the certificate as it will be primary evidence itself. Also see : Kishan Tripathi Vs. The State (MANU/DE/0434/2016), where it was held that Original Hard Disk containing CCTV Footage is a primary evidence u/s 62 EA.
This position has been reaffirmed by the Hon’ble Supreme Court recently in Harpal Singh @ Chhota Vs. State Of Punjab (CRIMINAL APPEAL NO. 2539 OF 2014) Date of Decision : 21.11.2016.
In cases relating to voice/video recording : the absence of tampering, identity of voice (confirmed through ‘voice samples’ taken before the magistrate and subsequent examination through Forensic Labs) is extremely crucial.
Another contentious question in this regard that came up in a series of cases was : whether a witness who is seeking to prove an electronic record can be allowed to depose in the court in his examination in chief as to the conditions of S.65B as sufficient compliance. The answer to this question has to be ‘No’. When the statute demands something to be done in a specific manner, it has to be done in that manner alone and the procedure cannot be circumvented. Therefore, the requirement of certificate u/s 65B cannot be satisfied by a witness deposing as to these conditions, in the examination in chief. This is the import in the decision of Jagdeo Singh and Ors. Vs. The State (MANU/DE/0376/2015)
- Proof of SMS
In case of proof of SMS, the original handset can be led in evidence as primary evidence. In case of extracted copy of SMS, certificate u/s 65B of the IEA becomes essential. In both these cases, it is of extreme significance to first of all – clone the mobile phone device, take a backup and operate on the backup copy only. Any alteration of data on the mobile phone will seriously undermine the evidentiary value of the SMS.
- Proof of Email
If the email rests on a web based email facility like gmail/yahoo etc – A printout of the email (alongwith meta data/header information (required u/s 7 of the IT Act) has to be accompanied with a certificate u/s 65B of the Evidence Act, given by the person operating the account and taking the printout. Section 88A of the Evidence Act also provides for certain presumptions with respect to receipt of emails, which may be useful in proof of email correspondences.
In case of server based emails, the certificate ought to come from the incharge of the computer servers.
In all these cases, the preservation of what is called ‘meta-data’ is extremely crucial. Simply put, meta data is data about data and contains information relating to date/time/origin/authenticity/access date of the data, which goes on to strengthen, or destroy its evidentiary or believability quotient. (More on this on our piece of digital forensics!)
There might be one more provision that may become important insofar as emails are concerned :-
Section 88A – Presumption as to Electronic Messages. It reads :
“The Court may presume that an electronic message, forwarded by the originator through an electronic mail server to the addressee to whom the message purports to be addressed corresponds with the message as fed into his computer for transmission; but the Court shall not make any presumption as to the person by whom such message was sent.” .
Simply put, the presumption in this section is to the effect that data sent by email from X computer corresponds to data received at Y computer. The court may not draw the presumption, or the same may be rebutted, being a rebuttable presumption of fact. Besides this, there is no presumption as to the identity of the sender as the section makes clear.
In addition to this, under section 65B it has to be proved that the computer during the relevant period was in the lawful control of the person proving the email [Babu Ram Aggarwal & Anr. Vs. Krishan Kumar Bhatnagar & Ors. 2013 IIAD (Delhi) 441].
In Abdul Rahaman Kunji Vs. The State of West Bengal [MANU/WB/0828/2014] the Hon’ble High Court of Calcutta while deciding the admissibility of email held that an email downloaded and printed from the email account of the person can be proved by virtue of Section 65B r/w Section 88A of Evidence Act. The testimony of the witness to carry out such procedure to download and print the same is sufficient to prove the electronic communication.
- Proof of Bank Statements, whether compliance of S.65B essential ?
- This is governed by a special law. As per the Bankers Book Evidence Act, (Sec 2A of BBEA), the following three certificates are required to prove a bank statement :-
- A certificate regarding authenticity of entry/printout by the principal accountant or branch manager.
- Authenticity certificate from person in-charge of computer system regarding:-
- Details of Computer System
- Process of Data Storage
- Safeguard to protect Computer System and Data
- the fact that such computer system operated properly at the material time, he was provided with all the relevant data and the printout in question.
- Whether a certificate u/s 65B conclusively proves the facts contained in the electronic record and amounts to truth ?
The answer has to be a resounding ‘No’. S.65B deals with conditions precedent for admission of the electronic evidence. Compliance of S.65B Evidence Act allows the court to read the document. The court still has to examine relevancy, genuineness, veracity and reliability of the document. The probative worth, that is to say, whether the document has an actual bearing on the case or not or how much weight is to be attached to it, is also to be examined independently.
- Whether a Certificate u/s 65B of the Evidence Act has to be mandatorily filed along with the printout/CD, or can the same be filed subsequently as well?
The earlier view was that the certificate had to be filed alongside the print of electronic record, and not thereafter. However, after the Delhi High Court Judgment in Kundan Singh Vs. The State [MANU/DE/3674/2015], the position in law has been clarified : A certificate u/s 65B can be filed even thereafter, and need not be filed alongside. The witness who had tendered the electronic record in evidence can be recalled u/s 311 of the CrPC for the purpose of producing the certificate. The underlying basis of this view is that initial lapse on the part of the party should not detain the court from having the required evidence before it, which will assist the court in discovery of the truth. The court shall seek all evidence before it which is essential for a just decision of the case. All endeavour is to be made to decide the case on merits, rather than exclude what may be important evidence on technical considerations.
What follows is that the certificate can be filed even after filing of chargesheet, and can form part of a supplementary chargesheet u/s 173(8) of the CrPC.
Even the Rajasthan High Court in Paras Jain and Ors. Vs. State of Rajasthan, [MANU/RH/1150/2015] has held that : non filing of certificate u/s 65B Evidence Act is not an incurable irregularity and can be rectified later on.
- Whether an objection as to non compliance of S.65B of the Evidence Act can be waived or conceded ?
- Though there is no direct decision on this point, but if the opposite party admits a printout/CD/DVD etc and does not dispute it, in such a situation, admission acts as waiver of proof and compliance of S.65B IEA to prove the same is not required. An objection as to mode of proof can be waived if not taken at the appropriate stage. Shamsher Singh Verma Vs. State of Haryana [MANU/SC/1345/2015]
Law relating to proof of electronic evidence is in a state of huge flux in view of rapid technological advancements. The law is struggling to keep pace with them. Some questions relating to time of filing of certificate have been answered, while some relating to the authorship of the certificate are still to be worked on and authoritative precedent on these points is required.
*The Author is a Delhi based lawyer and has advised and fought many electronic evidence/cyber crime issues, across India and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org