According to the Black’s Law dictionary, the term document means any instrument on which any information is recorded in means of writing, figures or marks and any form of recording of such kind which can be used later. The documents have a stronger evidentiary value and it is of great reliability.
For example, in the case where any individual has to claim health insurance, he/ she has to provide with the necessary hospital bills and other such documents. In the event of losing such documents, the insurance could not be claimed. So these documents must be preserved with utmost protection.
However in certain cases, these documents would have been destroyed because of natural reasons such as natural calamities, earthquake, flood etc or they would have got destroyed in the fire.
Fire accidents occur due to various reasons. It may be due to the poor maintenance of the electrical circuits, short circuiting and so on. The fire could not be controlled in all cases and it causes way more damage within small span of the incidence. A large number of documents are maintained as records in government offices, banks may contain the original documents of any property that has been mortgaged and other original documents that have been held as security.
- On March 6, 2019, a fire broke out in the office of Ministry of Social Justice at COG Complex which is located in the South Delhi. The fire caused the death of a sub inspector and lot of documents were found to be destroyed. The reports stated that at least 80% of the records were destroyed in fire.[i]
- On April 10, 2019, a fire accident broke out in the customs office of Indira Gandhi International Airport, New Delhi. The fire destroyed several important documents that were in the possession of the customs office.[ii] In this particular case, the officials had filed a complaint under Section 436 of the Indian Penal Code[iii].
The National Personnel Records Fire Accident:
On July 12, 1973, a major fire accident took place at the National Personnel Records Centre (NPRC) which destroyed approximately 16- 18 million official military personnel files. The fire fighters could not control the fire for a long period of time and the locals were forced to stay inside their houses as the fire resulted in the heavy smoke. The fire accident was worse as it destroyed large number of records which have neither any duplicates nor any microfilm copies. [iv]
What is Fire insurance?
Fire insurance policy is the contract between the insurer and the buyer where the insurer promises the buyer to pay for any loss or damages caused to the property as a result of any fire accident.
In case of claims the value of the assets can be claimed based on their market value and keeping in mind the costs of appreciation and depreciation. In general, fire insurance coverage includes damages caused as a result of any natural accidents such as lightning, accidental fires, explosions and other human caused damages which have been caused without an intention to do so.
Essentials conditions in claiming fire insurance:
- There must be actual fire in the insured premises.
- The fire must be accidental and beyond the reasonable control of the policy holder.
- Loss or damage must be due to the burning that has been triggered by the said fire accident.
There has been no express provision under the law regarding fire insurance to documents that are destroyed in fire. Certain preventive measures can be taken to protect the documents from fire.
- In T.T Blades and Ors. V. United India Fire and General Insurance Co. Ltd, the court held that it is the responsibility of the person claiming insurance to establish their case for recovery of amount under insurance policy. When such person fails to establish their case then he/ she will not be entitled to any relief. The plaintiff in that particular case could not provide proper evidence to the fire because the documents were lost in fire along with all their other goods. Since they could not provide with proper evidence, they could not claim fire insurance.[v]
- Installing fire proof safe vaults: The important documents that are needed to be protected can be kept in a fire proof vault in such a manner that they escape from fire accidents.
- Maintaining a soft copy of the documents: All the documents that need protection can be uploaded in Cloud or in Drive and can be made accessible at any time. However, these documents should be protected with passwords and be prevented from third party intervention.
- Hard photocopies of these documents: The documents can be photocopied and be maintained in some other place other than where the original documents are placed.
Preventive measures as prescribed under Indian Law
The Registration Act, 1908 provides with certain measures that can be taken to protect the documents from fire.
- According to Section 16(3), the State Government can supply the office of every registrar with a fire- proof box and shall take necessary measures to protect such records that are in their office premises.[vi]
- Under Section 16 A of the Registration Act, it provides guidelines to protect the documents by keeping in computer floppies or diskettes or in any other electronic form and it is subject to safeguards as may be prescribed by the Inspector general with the sanction as given by the State Government.[vii]
National Building Code (NBC), 2005:
The documents that are stored in the government offices and records that are maintained by them are prone to fire accidents. There arises a need to protect the buildings of the Government offices from fire accidents. The national building code of India defines the basic norms that are to be followed in fire prevention.
It defines basic terms such as:
1. Fire alarm system and automatic fire detection- These alarm system comes with a sensor that alarms the building in case of any smoke emitted as a result of fire.
2. Automatic sprinkler system- A system of water sprinklers that can control and extinguish the fire by sprinkling fire.
These systems are made compulsory to be installed in every building to prevent fire accidents. Other preventive measures include establishing fire exit, proper fire ventilation, fire stop and so on.[viii]
An FIR can be filed for discovery of any lost records and the Public Records Officer is under the obligation to conduct proper investigation and report the findings regarding the records through an affidavit to the appellant. These powers have been conferred by the officer through the Public Records Act, 1933. There are no express provisions to the remedies given the person who lost his documents in fire. But if these documents are of evidentiary value to a particular case and if had been destroyed intentionally, the person who caused such an act shall be punished under Section 201 of IPC with imprisonment for a term that may extend up to 7 years or with fine.[ix]
Any business and commercial transactions rely on the records and documents. They stand as a reliable source of information. Documents state the express consent of the parties in any contract in the form of agreements. Thus proper measures have to be taken to preserve these documents and modern technologies must be incorporated in such a way that the fire accidents could be prevented and proper preservation methods for documents can be incorporated.
Edited by Pragash Boopal
Approved & Published – Sakshi Raje
[iii] Mischief by fire or explosive substance with the intent to cause fire to destroy house of dwelling, property etc. Imprisonment for a term which may extent up to 10 years and liable to fine as well
[v] AIR 2006 Bom 278
[vi] Section 16 (3) of the Registration Act, 1908
[vii] Section 16A of the Registration Act, 1908