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.
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”