“Judicial Independence and Accountability Go Hand-in-hand; Office of Chief Justice Falls under RTI Act,” Rules SC
The argument by the Attorney General of India, KK Venugopal, at the Supreme Court (SC) hearing in September 2019, that the office of Chief Justice of India (CJI) coming under the Right to Information (RTI) Act, “will prove deleterious to the functioning of the judiciary;” was nullified on Wednesday when the Constitution Bench of the apex court gave a historic order. The Supreme Court upheld the Delhi High Court’s judgement of 2010, bringing the CJI’s office under the RTI Act.
 
The Constitution Bench, which comprised CJI Ranjan Gogoi, Justices Sanjiv Khanna, NV Ramana, Deepak Gupta and DY Chandrachud, stated that transparency and accountability go hand in hand, which does not undermine judicial independence and that, disclosure is a facet of public interest.
 
The apex court has passed three judgments—one by Chief Justice Gogoi and Justices Khanna and Gupta, and two separate concurring judgements by Justices Ramana and Chandrachud.
 
The following questions of law as per the Constitution were addressed during the hearing:
 
* Whether the concept of independence of the judiciary requires and demands the prohibition of permission of the information sought?
 
* Whether the information sought amounts to interference in the functioning of the judiciary?
 
* Whether the information sought cannot be furnished to avoid any erosion in the credibility of the decisions and to ensure a free and frank expression of honest opinion by all the constitutional functionaries, which is essential for effective consultation and for taking the right decision?
 
* Whether the information sought for is exempt under Section 8 (I j) of the RTI Act?
 
It may be recalled that in 2010, the Delhi High Court upheld a decision by the Central Information Commission (CIC) that the office of the CJI is public authority under the Right to Information (RTI) Act and therefore judges’ assets should be made public. The SC filed an appeal, but the Delhi HC dismissed it. The central public information officer (CPIO) of the SC and the Secretary General of the SC then filed a petition against the Delhi High Court order in the SC. 
 
 In April 2019, a five judge bench headed by Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi reserved the order. During that hearing, CJI Gogoi had stated “in the name of transparency, you can’t destroy the institution.”
 
Through this judgement, the apex court has junked the appeal filed by secretary general of SC challenging the Delhi High Court order in holding office of CJI amenable under the RTI.
 
It all started when, on 10 November 2007, RTI activist Subhashchandra Agrawal filed a request with the central public information officer (CPIO) of the SC seeking a copy of the resolution dated 7 May 1997 of the SC requiring every judge to declare personal assets, and also provide information on whether any such declaration of assets were filed by judges of the SC to the CJI and whether the High Court judges are submitting declarations about their assets to their respective Chief Justices in their states. 
 
While the CPIO provided a copy of the 1997 resolution, he denied information relating to judges’ declaration of assets.  He replied that the inforamation is under the control of the registry of the SC and, therefore, it could not be furnished. 
 
When Mr Agrawal appealed to the first appellate authority (FAA), the latter reprimanded the CPIO and said that he should have transferred the application to the CPIO of the registry, as per the RTI Act. So, the FAA sent back the application to the CPIO for further perusal.
 
However, the CPIO of registry not only denied information but reprimanded Mr Agrawal in his reply saying, “In the case at hand, you yourself knew that the information sought by you is related to various High Courts in the country and instead of applying to those public authorities you have taken a short circuit procedure by approaching the CPIO, Supreme Court of India remitting the fee of Rs10 payable to one authority and getting it referred to all the public authorities at the expense of one CPIO. In view of this, the relief sought by you cannot be appreciated and is against the spirit of Section 6 (3) of the RTI Act, 2005.”
 
Mr Agrawal then filed a second appeal at the CIC. During the hearing, the CPIO of the SC submitted that the 1997 resolution was an in-house exercise; and declaration regarding assets by judges is only voluntary and that the resolution describes the submissions as confidential. Further, he said that those judges who have submitted declarations to the CJI have done so in their personal capacity and not official capacity and so any disclosure of information would be violation of the 1997 resolution.
 
The CIC ordered that information must be provided within four weeks by the CPIO of the SC. Instead, the CPIO appealed in the Delhi High Court.
 
When the HC upheld the CIC, he along with the registrar of the SC filed an appeal in the SC. 
 
Today, the verdict is good news for transparency and accountability in judiciary.
 
(Vinita Deshmukh is consulting editor of Moneylife, an RTI activist and convener of the Pune Metro Jagruti Abhiyaan. She is the recipient of prestigious awards like the Statesman Award for Rural Reporting which she won twice in 1998 and 2005 and the Chameli Devi Jain award for outstanding media person for her investigation series on Dow Chemicals. She co-authored the book “To The Last Bullet - The Inspiring Story of A Braveheart - Ashok Kamte” with Vinita Kamte and is the author of “The Mighty Fall”.) 
 
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    SC Asks Centre, 8 States for Status Report on Filling Information Commissioners’ Posts
    Despite clear-cut directives by the Supreme Court on 15 February 2019, to the Centre and eight states to make appointments to information commissions in a timely manner and to make transparent the names of the members of the search and selection committees, the agenda and minutes of committee meetings, the advertisement issued for vacancies, particulars of applicants, names of shortlisted candidates, file notings and correspondence related to appointments by uploading them in the public domain, there has hardly been any compliance.
     
    On Wednesday, a petition regarding vacancies in the information commissions set up under the Right to Information (RTI) Act was heard by the Supreme Court. It directed all the respondents (Union of India and eight state governments) to file a status report regarding compliance with the judgement given on 15 February 2019.
     
    The eight state governments are: Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Odisha, Telangana, West Bengal, Karnataka, Kerala and Gujarat. The case is now listed for 16 December 2019.  As the directions of the SC were not complied with by the Centre and several states, a petition was filed to the Supreme Court in September 2019.
     
    Just to understand the seriousness of non-compliance, it is pertinent to note, that as of today, that is 6 November, 2019, four posts of information commissioners are vacant and more than 33,000 appeals/complaints are pending at the Central Information Commission (CIC). Anjali Bharadwaj, one of the petitioners, stated that, “The backlog of cases has been rising every month and it takes several months, even years, for matters to be heard. On the directions of the SC, the Central government had issued an advertisement in January 2019, inviting applications for filling the four vacancies. However, the appointments have not been made till date.”
     
    Besides, the Central government has failed to follow the directions of the Court in terms of transparency in the appointment process. To this effect, Ms Bharadwaj states, “The government has not disclosed the composition of the search committee or selection committee, details of applications received in response to the advertisement or the criteria adopted for shortlisting of applications. In fact, the department of personnel & training (DoPT) denied access to this information under the RTI Act, claiming that these were exempt under Section 8(1)(i), which deals with cabinet papers and is not related to such matters.”
     
    As for Maharashtra, the Supreme Court had directed that, considering the large number of pending cases in the Maharashtra State Information Commission, it should function at full strength of 11 commissioners (chief and 10 information commissioners). However, says Ms Bharadwaj, “the state government has failed to make appointments. Currently the SIC is functioning with only five commissioners even as more than 50,000 appeals or complaints were pending as of 30 September 2019.”
     
    As for Andhra Pradesh, its SIC has been functioning without a chief ever since an independent commission was set up for the state in 2017 following the bifurcation of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana.
     
    The bench of Justice SA Bobde, Justice S Abdul Nazeer and Justice Krishna Murari heard the matter in the Supreme Court.  Ms Bhardwaj, Commodore (Retd) Lokesh Batra and Amrita Johri have filed the petition. They were represented by senior advocate Prashant Bhushan and advocates Pranav Sachdeva and Rahul Gupta.
     
    Supreme Court’s observations on why information commissions should perform to their maximum strength and do so transparently:
     
    • The SC had observed that the objective of the RTI Act is to ensure time-bound access to information and, therefore, commissions should dispose appeals/complaints in a timely manner. 

     

    • In order to achieve this, the SC held that all information commissions should have adequate number of commissioners based on the workload. It opined that where there are large backlogs of appeals/complaints, the commissions should function at full strength i.e. 1 chief and 10 information commissioners. 

     

    • The judgment emphasized that if commissions do not function with adequate number of commissioners, it would negate the very purpose of enacting the RTI law.
     
    (Vinita Deshmukh is consulting editor of Moneylife, an RTI activist and convener of the Pune Metro Jagruti Abhiyaan. She is the recipient of prestigious awards like the Statesman Award for Rural Reporting which she won twice in 1998 and 2005 and the Chameli Devi Jain award for outstanding media person for her investigation series on Dow Chemicals. She co-authored the book “To The Last Bullet - The Inspiring Story of A Braveheart - Ashok Kamte” with Vinita Kamte and is the author of “The Mighty Fall”.)
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    Bihar: 13 boards, commissions and corporations not submitted annual reports for several years, reveals RTI
    At least 13 commissions, boards and corporations in Bihar have not submitted their annual report to the state legislature for several years, an RTI query has revealed.
     
    These commissions and boards have not submitted their report for at least 13 years, the RTI query showed. 
     
    The annual report highlights the achievements, gives details of expenses incurred during a financial year etc, an official said. 
     
    The filing of annual reports is compulsory as per provisions of the Bihar State Information Commission to ensure transparency. Ironically, the state information commission too has not filed its annual reports after 2015-16.
     
    Sources say commissions, boards and corporations not filing annual reports may indicate financial irregularities, which could be pointed out during annual auditing.
     
    According to the RTI finding, the Bihar Public Service Commission is the only organisation in Bihar which has filed its annual report for 2017-18. 
     
    The Bihar Police Building Construction Corporation has not submitted its annual report since 2004-05. Similarly, the Bihar State Tourism Development Corporation has not filed its report since 2005-06. 
     
    Among boards, the Bihar State Pollution Control Board has not submitted its annual report after 2007-08. "Delay is because of lack of staff. We will put this point before House Committee," said an official of the pollution control board. 
     
    Sanjay Kumar, the public relations officer of the Bihar Legislative Assembly said, "the annual reports of 2018-19 have not been submitted to the Assembly by any commission or board or corporation so far by the Estimates Committee wing of the Assembly." 
     
    The Bihar Assembly secretariat has taken serious note of the irregularities. Assembly Speaker Vijay Kumar Choudhary said that the government has a Public Undertaking Committee to look into these matters. 
     
    He said fresh reminders will be issued to the commissions, boards and corporations to file their annual reports. 
     
    Disclaimer: Information, facts or opinions expressed in this news article are presented as sourced from IANS and do not reflect views of Moneylife and hence Moneylife is not responsible or liable for the same. As a source and news provider, IANS is responsible for accuracy, completeness, suitability and validity of any information in this article.
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