The High Courts have a poor record of proactive disclosures under section 4 of the Right to Information (RTI) Act in terms of implementation and quality of dissemination of such information on their respective websites. This can be gauged from the fact that only 15 of the 24 High Courts have made disclosures with varying degrees of content, while the remaining nine of them have not even bothered to publish these mandatory suo motu disclosures.
It is, indeed, distressing to note that while all the High Courts are efficiently and promptly putting up their orders and judgements on their websites, free of cost, they are found wanting when it comes to compliance under Section 4 of the RTI Act on their websites.
The comprehensive research on ‘Ranking the High Courts on their Compliance with the RTI Act’ by the Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy, an independent think tank engaged in legal research to make better laws and improve governance for the public good, observes that even though 15 of the 24 High Courts have complied, the quality of disclosures made by these 15 under section 4 demonstrates a 'great degree of variance'.
Of all the 24 High Courts, it was found that those of Kerala and Punjab & Haryana had made the best quality disclosures under the RTI Act. In contrast, those of Orissa, Karnataka and Chhattisgarh were of the poorest quality. The High Courts of Bombay, Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand had the best disclosures regarding the budget statements. They provided the updated budget and surrender statements for the High Court and the district courts that fall under them.
As for updating information from time to time, the High Courts of Delhi, Kerala and Punjab & Haryana made available updated disclosures with the latest information, while the High Courts of Gauhati and Jharkhand displayed entirely outdated disclosures. The Allahabad High Court provided a hyperlink to the body of the rules and the Delhi High Court reproduced the text of the rules within its disclosure, which is easily accessible to people.
In the category of lack of information on rules that the High Courts must mandatorily put up for the convenience of lawyers, litigants, and interested citizens, the High Courts of Bombay and Punjab & Haryana provide a comprehensive list of rules.
These include rules on (1) High Court procedures (2) recruitment, conditions of service of the state judiciary and its employees (3) financial management and the financial powers of the High Court (4) RTI (5) administration of district judiciary and subordinate judiciary under the jurisdiction of the High Court and (6) other rules.
The report additionally observes: “We found that High Courts of Bombay and Punjab & Haryana provide a comprehensive list of rules and hence they received the highest score under this head. These are good practices which improve the ease of access to this information.”
Bombay High Court had the best disclosure of information regarding categories of documents held by the High Court under Section 4(1)(b)(vi). Public authorities are required to disclose ‘a statement of the categories of documents that are held by it or under its control.’ For disclosures under this head, the Courts were examined for disclosing the type of documents they maintain regarding personnel, recruitment, financial and other administrative functions.
Regarding lack of information on the respective district courts that fall under each High Court, the Allahabad, Bombay, Himachal Pradesh and Kerala High Courts have disclosed information regarding subordinate courts.
On the other hand, the High Courts of Chhattisgarh, Delhi, Karnataka and Orissa do not make disclosures at all. This category was measured by the heads of disclosure under Section 4(1)(b), that is, rules and regulations under its control (Section 4(1)(v)), budget statements of its agencies (Section 4(1)(b)(xi)) and details of PIO (Section 4(1)(b)(xvi)) which require the High Court to provide details of the subordinate courts within its administrative control.
As for the ease of accessing the disclosure, of all the High Courts, only those at Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh publish their disclosures in Hindi exclusively, which is the state’s official language. All other High Courts have the disclosures available only in English. Ideally, disclosures should be published in both English and the state’s local language, which is spoken by citizens residing in the jurisdiction of the High Court.
The survey evaluated the High Courts on the following six criteria:
1. the rules, regulations, instructions, manuals and records, held by it or under its control or used by its employees for discharging its functions;
2. a statement of the categories of documents that are held by it or under its control;
3. a statement of the boards, councils, committees and other bodies consisting of two or more persons constituted as its part or for its advice, and as to whether meetings of those boards, councils, committees and other bodies are open to the public, or the minutes of such meetings are accessible for public;
4. a directory of its officers and employees;
5. the budget allocated to each of its agency, indicating the particulars of all plans, proposed expenditures and reports on disbursements made and ;
6. the names, designations and other particulars of the public information officers.
The report observes that compliance under Section 4 of the RTI Act “is usually fulfilled by publishing the information on the website of the public authority. The intention behind this provision, as explained by the CIC in one of its orders, is to minimise the need for citizens to use the RTI Act to request information.”
In the pertinent part, the CIC held the following, “The importance of suo-moto disclosures under Section 4(1)(b) can hardly be over-emphasised as maximisation of such disclosures would result in minimisation of recourse to the provisions of section 6(1) of the Act and thereby save valuable time, energy and resources of the stakeholders viz, the public authorities and the information seekers.”
“Over the years, there have been several judicial pronouncements and administrative orders, reminding public authorities of the importance of proactive disclosure under Section 4(1)(b) of the RTI Act. In one such judgment from 201158, the Supreme Court stated the following: “The provisions of RTI Act should be enforced strictly and all efforts should be made to bring to light the necessary information under clause (b) of Section 4(1) of the Act.”
(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”.)