Judicial Dictionary

Right to privacy

Right to privacy has been culled out of the provisions of Article 21 and other provisions of the Constitution relating to Fundamental Rights read with Directive Principles of State Policy. It was in this context that it was held by this Court in, Kharak Singh v. State of Uttar Pradesh, AIR 1963 SC 1295, that police surveillance of a person by domiciliary visits would be violative of Article 21 of the Constitution. This decision was considered by Mathew, J. in his classic judgment in, Govind v. State of Madhya Pradesh (1975) 2 SCC 148 , in which the origin of “right to privacy” was traced and a number of American decisions, including, Munn v. Illinois (1877) 94 US 113; Wolf v. Colorado (1949) 338 US 25 and various Articles were considered and it was laid down ultimately, as under:

“Depending on the character and antecedents of the person subjected to surveillance as also the objects and the limitation under which surveillance is made, it cannot be said surveillance by domiciliary visits would always be unreasonable restriction upon the right of privacy. Assuming that the fundamental rights explicitly guaranteed to a citizen have penumbral zones and that the right to privacy is itself a fundamental right, that fundamental right must be subject to restriction on the basis of compelling public interest.”

 Kharak Singh v. State of Punjab AIR 1963 SC 1295 and Govind v. State of Madhya Pradesh (supra) came to be considered again by this Court in, Malak Singh v. State of Punjab (1981) 1 SCC 420 and the view taken earlier on the right of privacy was reiterated.

In another classic judgment rendered by Jeevan Reddy, J., in, R. Rajagopal @ RR Gopal v. State of Tamil Nadu (1994) 6 SCC 632 , the right of privacy vis-a-vis the right of the Press under Article 19 of the Constitution were considered and in the research-oriented judgment, it was laid down, inter alia, as under:

“The right to privacy is implicit in the right to life and liberty guaranteed to the citizens of this country by Article 21. It is a “right to be let alone.” A citizen has a right to safeguard the privacy of his own, his family, marriage, procreation, motherhood, childbearing and education among other matters. None can publish anything concerning the above matters without his consent – Whether truthful or otherwise and whether laudatory or critical. If he does so, he would be violating the right to privacy of the person concerned and would be liable in an action for damages. Position may, however, be different, if a person voluntarily thrusts himself into controversy or voluntarily invites or raises a controversy.”

 In an American decision, Jane Roe v. Henry Wade (410, US 113), the Supreme Court of United States said that:

“Although the Constitution of the U.S.A. does not explicitly mention any right of privacy, the United States Supreme Court recognizes that a right of personal privacy, or a guarantee of certain areas or zones of privacy, does exist under the Constitution, and that the roots of that right may be found in the First Amendment, in the Fourth and Fifth Amendments, in the penumbras of the Bill of Rights, in the Ninth Amendment, and in the concept of liberty quaranteed by the first section of the Fourteenth Amendment and that the “right to privacy is not absolute.”

Reference may, at this stage, be made to Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights which defines this right as follows:

“(1) Every one has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence. (2) There shall be no interference by a public authority with the exercise of this right except such as is in accordance with the LAW and is necessary in democratic society in the interests of national security, public safety or the economic well being of the country, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.”

(Emphasis supplied)

As one of the basic Human Rights, the right of privacy is not treated as abolute and is subject to such action as may be LAWfully taken for the prevention of crime or disorder or protection of health or morals or protection of rights and freedoms of others.

Right of Privacy may, apart from contract, also arise out of a particular specific relationship which may be commercial, matrimonial, or even political. As already discussed above, Doctor-patient relationship, though basically commercial, is professionally, a matter of confidence and, therefore, Doctors are morally and ethically bound to maintain confidentiality. In such a situation, public disclosure of even true private facts may amount to an invasion of the Right of Privacy which may sometimes lead to the clash of one person’s “right to be let alone” with another person’s right to be informed.

Disclosure of even true private facts has the tendency to disturb a person’s tranquillity. It may generate many complexes in him and may even lead to psychological problems. He may, thereafter, have a disturbed life all through. In the face of these potentialities, and as already held by this Court in its various decisions referred to above, the Right of Privacy is an essential component of right to life envisaged by Article 21. The right however, is not absolute and may be LAWfully restricted for the prevention of crime, disorder or protection of health or morals or protection of rights and freedom of others.


Ref: AIR 1999 SC 495 : (1998) 1 Suppl. SCR 723 : (1998) 8 SCC 296 : JT 1998 (7) SC 626 : (1998) 6 SCALE 230

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