Public Document under the Evidence Act

By Aleena Anna Sabu


Documentary evidence could be understood in its broadest sense. Documentary evidence in this aspect would encompass almost anything that is on paper. Section 3 of the Indian Evidence Act of 1872 is an interpretation clause. Meanings for the words “document” and “evidence” can be found in Section 3. 

Accordingly, the word “document” would mean any content, subject, topic, point of issue, or anything that is either articulated or described in any material. Such articulation could be by the means of letters, figures, marks, or combinations of these. The purpose and intention of this should be to record general matters. According to this definition, the word “document” can be interpreted in a wide manner to include any piece of writing, printed, lithographed, or photographed words, a map or plan, an inscription on a metal or stone, an electronic record, or even a caricature.

In the case of C. Mangesh and others v. the State of Karnataka [Criminal Appeal Nos. 1028-1029 of 2008], the honorable supreme court talked about the validity of FIR as documentary evidence. It was held that an FIR is not a substantive piece of evidence; it can only be considered a confirmatory factor.

The word “evidence” is derived from the Latin word “evidencia” or “evidencia,” which translates into “clearness.” Evidence can, thus, be introduced as an instrument that is submitted to prove or disprove any matter or fact in a court of law during any judicial investigation. Section 3 goes on to define evidence in two ways. The first aspect is that evidence includes all those statements made by the witnesses under an inquiry that is submitted to the court. The second aspect is that it includes all such documents produced in a court of law for examination or investigation. 

The first type of evidence is called “oral evidence,” which is discussed in sections 59 and 60 of the Indian Evidence Act of 1872. The second type of evidence is called documentary evidence, and it is discussed in Sections 61 to 100 of the Indian Evidence Act of 1872. A question raised related to evidence is whether any statement given by the accused person against himself could be considered evidence. The answer to the question is no, but it is also up to the courts’ discretion to accept such statements as evidence.

Other than the above classification, evidence can be of two types: primary evidence and secondary evidence. According to Section 62, primary evidence is the most genuine source of evidence. Such evidence should be produced in front of a court of law if a party has the primary evidence. Secondary evidence is discussed in Section 63. Basically, secondary evidence is a copy or a duplicate of the original evidence. Generally, the courts prefer primary evidence as they are original documents over secondary evidence, which are just photocopies. 

Types of documents

As mentioned above, all the evidence that follows a written format is basically documentary evidence. Documentary evidence can be classified into two types: public documents or private documents. 

Public documents: As the name suggests, public documents are the kinds of documents that are available to the entire public. They are published with the intention of public knowledge. These are also known as public records and can be used by the public as reference documents. Public documents are admissible evidence because such documents are usually validated by a public officer. 

Private documents are documents created between individuals for the purpose of communication or business transactions. Such documents are not published for the public’s knowledge but are held within the custody of private individuals. 

Public Documents 

What kinds of documents would be private documents? To answer that question, one has to look into section 74 of the Indian Evidence Act of 1872. The section classifies public documents into four types. As a result, any document that constitutes the act or is at least a record of the act qualifies.

  • Of a sovereign authority (essentially the supreme authority),
  • Of official bodies, this also includes tribunals.
  • Of public officials, legislative, judiciary, and executive—both within any part of India or of any foreign country.
  • Public records are private documents that are kept in any state.

Here, documents that qualify as a record of acts include even those records of statements that a police officer records while examining a witness under Section 161 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973. 

The Andhra Pradesh High Court in the case of K Pedda Jangaiah v. Mandal Revenue Officer, Moinabad Madal, Ranga Reddy District [W.P. 15684 of 1995 Decided On, July 27, 1995] explained that “pahanies” and “faisal patties” are considered to be public documents. The High Court of Andhra Pradesh also held that in the case of any land disputes where a settlement is reached or when relating to land revenue, any survey is conducted, the revenue officers are expected to maintain a record of all of this as well. And such documents or records maintained by the revenue officer are public documents as well. 

Similarly, in the case of Capt. S. L. Sharma v. CPIO, Asst. director/SFS, Delhi Development Authority, Self-Financing Scheme (Housing), Vikas Sadan, INA, New Delhi [Second Appeal No. :-CIC/DDATY/A/2017/178122-BJ], according to the central information commission, records maintained by any development authority in a region are also public documents. 

Public documents also include schemes that are published in the official gazette. Also, the Supreme Court of India, in the case of Smt Seema v. Ashwani Kumar [Transfer Petition (civil) 291 of 2005], held that even a Hindu marriage register is a public document.

The Royal Sundaram Alliance, Insurance Co. Ltd., Sundaram Towners, MACT Cell, Nos. 45 and 46, Whites Road, Chennai v. D. Gunasekaran and others [M. P. Nos. 1 and 2 of 2007]—the honorable Justice S. Manikumar explained the position of the FIR as a public document. He ruled that 1. any certified copy of an FIR or civil court orders are public documents.2. The charge sheet filed against any individual under Section 120-B of the Indian Penal Code of 1860 is also a public document that can be submitted as evidence without any proof of the same.

From the above cases, it is clear that just because a document is kept in a public office does not satisfy the condition of Section 74 of the Indian Evidence Act of 1872 to classify it as a public document. For the document to be considered a public document, it should be prepared and maintained by a public servant when he or she is discharging his official duty. 

In the case of Shri Narattam Das and others v. M. D. Masaddar Ali Barbhuiya and others [Second Appeal No. 61 of 1982 Decided On, December 21, 1990], the High Court of Guwahati explained Section 74(2) of the Indian Evidence Act of 1872. Accordingly, the honorable Justice Manisan Singh and Justice J M Srivastava held that if a private document made by any individual person is kept as a record in public offices, then it can be regarded as a public document. According to this explanation, a Memorandum of Association of a company comes under the scope of a public document.

Is a Medico-Legal Report a Public Document? 

This question was answered by the Delhi High Court in the case of Dalip Kumar Alias Pinki vs. the State on January 23, 1995 [1995 CriLJ 1742]. According to the Honourable Justice S. D. Pandit, if the medical report is prepared and maintained by a medical officer while discharging his or her duty as a public servant, then such a report can be held as a public document. Also, the contents of such documents are well admissible in a court of law as evidence. 

Are the records maintained by Nationalised Banks Public Documents? 

In the case of Shri Keshava Gupta vs. Coal India Limited on February 4, 2010 [F.No.CIC/AT/A/2009/900755 Dated February 4, 2010.], the Information Commissioner considered the records maintained by nationalized banks to be public documents.

Elements of a public document

In the important case of Rangaraju vs. Kannayal on January 10, 2012 [SECOND APPEAL NO.621 OF 1999], the High Court of Judicature at Madras laid down a few important characteristics which are required to categorize a document as a public document. In this case, the honorable Justice M. Venugopal held that a public document should have the following elements:

  • The first and foremost thing is that a public document must be prepared by a public servant in his or her official capacity—that is when he or she is discharging his or her official duty.
  • A public document can only be a public document when it is made available for public reference.
  • test for publicity: the public should show some interest in the document. The public should also have the right to look out for any mistakes or errors in the document. If the public finds an error, they also have the right to protest against the same. 
  • A document is a public document not only when there is a demand to inspect the document but also when there is a will to obtain the certified document, which they obtain after paying a certain amount of legal fees.


From the above discussions, it is now clear that a share allotment certificate, which indicates the share allotted to each person, is a private document. It is considered so because the parties to the document are individual people and society. But in the case of Union of India (through the Indian Army) v. the State of Maharashtra and others dated 29/04/2016 [WRIT PETITION NO. 452 OF 2012], the Bombay High Court held such a document to be a public document because the society at large was involved. And when a matter of public interest arises, a private document can be considered to be a public document. The only other condition it needs to fulfill is that the document should have been made by a public servant. 

In another case, a document made by a public official was not considered to be a public document. In the case of Hardayal vs. Aram Singh and Others, on October 13, 2000 [AIR 2001 MP 203], the Madhya Pradesh High Court held that the “panchanama” that a public officer prepares cannot be considered to be prepared during the discharge of his or her duty. As a result, Honourable Justice Arun Mishra ruled that such a document cannot be considered public.

How does a public document differ from its private counterpart?

To understand what constitutes a public document and a private document under the Indian Evidence Act, one has to look into Sections 74 and 75, respectively. 

The first difference between a public document and a private document is based on who prepared the document in the first place. If the said document is prepared and maintained by a public servant during the discharge of his or her public duty, then it is a public document. whereas, if the said document is prepared and maintained by an individual where his or her personal interest is involved with respect to his or her rights, then such a document is a private document.

Another major difference between a public document and a private document is based on its availability. A public document, as its name suggests, is published for the use and reference of the general public at large. Whereas, in the case of a private document, it is usually in the custody of the private individuals who are party to the document, and so the private document is not available to the general public.

When both the documents are looked at through the lens of admissibility in a court of law, some differences come up here as well. A court of law, for example, is bound to assume that the public document in front of them is genuine and valid in nature. the presumption is made because of the certification a public servant gives to the document. But even though the document is certified by a public servant when seen as evidence, a public document can only be proved by secondary evidence.

If in a similar situation, a private document is considered, the court of law is not bound to assume that the document produced is genuine. Of course, this presumption is also subject to some exceptions, as mentioned above. But, unlike public documents, a private document can be proved by primary evidence. 

Attested copies in the case of a public document

A certain procedure has to be followed to get an attested or certified copy of the relevant public document. This method is discussed in Section 76 of the Indian Evidence Act of 1872. For starters, a copy of a public document can be issued whenever the said public document is open to any inspection or investigation. The said copy can be issued to any person who demands such a copy. So, when a person demands a copy, he or she is expected to pay a certain amount of rupees as legal fees, and then the demand copy, along with an attached certificate, is issued. The certificate attached is important as it contains certain disclaimers and particulars without which the copy cannot be considered a “certified” copy. The certificate attached usually contains the date of the issue of such a certificate and copy, the name of the officer who issued the copy along with his official title, the seal of the office of the officer, and lastly, it mentions that the attested copy is true and not a fake one.

An important question that arises here is whether anyone has the right to demand an issue a certified copy of a public document.

On September 18, 1956, the honorable Justice Rajagopalan answered this question in the case of Rasipuram Union Motor Service vs. Commissioner of Income Tax [(1956) 2 MLJ 604]. the Madras High Court held that who can demand the certified copy of a public document boils down to the fact that the person demanding the copy has a right to inspect the copy in the first place. Accordingly, a person has the right to demand a certified copy of a public document if he has the right to inspect the said public document. Similarly, a person will not have the right to demand a certified copy of a public document if he or she does not have the right to inspect the document of interest in the first place. 

It goes without saying that if a person who has no right to inspect a public document obtains a certified copy of the said public document by any other means, then it is inferred that the person has acquired these documents illegally and the document will automatically lose its credibility as evidence in a court of law. 

Another important aspect regarding the right to obtain a public document is that the person only has the right to inspect that part of the document that he has the authority or right to inspect in the first place. The High Court of Allahabad explained this aspect in the case of Suraj Narain vs. Seth Jhabhu Lal and Others on January 28, 1944 [1945 13 ITR 13 All]. Here, the honorable Justice Mathur held that a person does not have the right to inspect the whole record or public document if they did not have the authority to inspect the whole record in the first place.

Public Document Categories

According to Section 78 of the Indian Evidence Act of 1872, there are basically six different kinds of public documents.

  1. which have been certified by the department’s head
  2. Journals of the proceedings of the legislatures were printed by the government.
  3. From the London Gazette: proclamations, orders, or notifications issued by either Her Majesty or the Privy Council.
  4. Acts of the foreign executives and proceedings of foreign legislatures
  5. Publications of the municipal bodies’ proceedings are certified by their legal keeper.
  6. Public documents from some other classes in a foreign country. 


From the above discussion, we can understand that a document that is prepared and maintained by a public servant during the course of his or her duty is said to be a public document. Definitely, there is an exception to this principle. If the public interest is concerned, then a private document can also be considered a public document. Even with regards to the admissibility of these documents in a court of law, a public document can be produced as evidence even without a witness to prove the contrary. One should also be clear as to which document is a public document versus which is a private document. For instance, apart from the previously mentioned, the register of a school, the census report of India, or even a sale or lease deed is considered to be a public document. But, a plaint is written, a post-mortem resort, a report regarding delivery of possession, etc. are not public documents. This division, which is already recognized in the Indian Evidence Act of 1872, ensures that when considering documentary evidence, no uncertainties arise. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *