Ten years ago, Justice Ravindra Bhat, then a judge in the Delhi High Court upheld a decision by Central Information Commission (CIC) that the office of the Chief Justice of India (CJI) is public authority under the Right to Information (RTI) Act and therefore judges’ assets should be made public.
The Supreme Court (SC) filed an appeal, but Delhi HC had dismissed it. Last week, Justice Bhat has been appointed as a Supreme Court judge, along with three others.
Ironically, his order bringing the SC under RTI has now been undone. The central public information officer (CPIO) of the Supreme Court and Secretary General of the Supreme Court have filed a petition against Justice Bhat’s order.
In April 2019, a five judge bench headed by Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi had reserved Justice Bhat’s order. During the hearing, CJI Gogoi had stated “in the name of transparency, you can’t destroy the institution.”
Attorney General Venugopal had argued during the hearing that if the CJI office comes under the RTI Act, it will affect judicial independence and cause ‘damage’.
In the backdrop of Justice Bhat’s appointment to the apex court, it is worth recollecting the case and the issues reaised. A simple request for information on whether judges are declaring assets to their respective chief justices turned into a contentious issue of privacy versus public information.
On 10th November, 2007, RTI activist Subhashchandra Agrawal had filed a request with the CPIO of the Supreme Court seeking a copy of the resolution dated 7 May 1997 of the SC requiring every judge to decalred assets and; to provide information on whether any such declaration of assets were filed by judges of the Supreme Court to the CJI and whether High Court judges are submitting declaration 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 Supreme Court 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 Supreme Court 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 Chief Justice have done so in their personal capacity and not official capacity and so any disclosure of informationwould be violation of the 1997 resolution.
The CIC reasoned that the Supreme Court was established by the Constitution of India and is a public authority; the Chief Justice of India is the competent authority, under the RTI Act, so both cannot disclaim being public authorities.
The CIC also observed that Mr Agrawal is apparently not seeking a copy of the declarations or the contents therein or even the names of the judges who have filed a declaration of assets, nor is he requesting inspection of such declarations. All he has asked is whether such declaration of assets have been filled by judges of the Supreme Court or High Courts. What he was seeking, said the CIC, cannot be held to attract exemption under Sections 8(1)(e) or 8(1) (j).
The CIC ordered the CPIO to provide the required information.
The CPIO then filed a petition with the Delhi High court against the CIC order. Justice Bhat, in his order on 2 September 2009 ordered that, “CPIO shall release the information sought by the respondent applicant, about the declaration of assets, (and not the contents of the declarations, as that was not sought for) made by judges of the Supreme Court, within four weeks.”
Instead of abiding by the order, the CPIO again filed a writ petition against it and this time, the Registrar of the Supreme Court became a co-petitioner and filed an appeal in the Supreme Court. The matter came up for hearing in April 2019 with the Supreme Court hearing an issue that involved its own disclosures. The order is reserved.
It will be interesting to see what happens to this issue.
(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”