Earlier this month, the three-judge bench led by Justice R Bhanumathi upheld that the Right to Information (RTI) Act cannot override relevant rules under the Gujarat High Court Rules. Information or certified copies of orders held by a high court (HC) can be given to a third party only as per rules framed by the HC and not under RTI, the Supreme Court (SC) says.
This, in other words, mean that a citizen cannot file RTI seeking to obtain pleadings in the HC that have own rules.
The RTI Act says that all information should be in public domain and as per Section 2(2) of the Act, the applicant is not required to provide any reason for requesting such information. And that such a stance is not ‘inconsistent’ with the RTI Act, the apex court ruled.
When Moneylife contacted former central information commissioner Shailesh Gandhi, he opined that, “What is obviously ‘inconsistent’ is that the High Court rules compel the information seeker to give reasons, which the RTI Act does not.
"This judgment is a direct assault on citizen’s fundamental right as what the Supreme Court says becomes law. Now, if every public authority were to derive their own rules and insist that information would be given strictly by those in-house rules only, then what happens to the RTI Act? We can write off the RTI Act in the next 10 years for we have been given a system of information under this law but now public authority gets the liberty to nullify it.”
In April 2010, an RTI applicant sought information on two civil application cases from the Gujarat High Court. The public information officer (PIO) of the HC replied that he should make an application through his advocate addressed to the deputy registrar and attach Rs3 court fee stamp. The PIO quoted Rule 151 of the Gujarat High Court Rules, 1993, which states that the application also needs to be accompanied by an affidavit stating the reasons why the applicant needs the documents, as he is not a party to both the cases. And that he would provided information only as per the Gujarat High Court rules 1993 and not under the RTI Act.
The RTI applicant then filed first appeal with the appellate authority, the registrar of administration of the Gujarat HC. In August 2010, the appeal was dismissed stating that “the alternative efficacious remedy is already available under the Gujarat High Court Rules,1993 for obtaining copies and that under the provisions of RTI Act, no certified copies can be provided.”
The appellant hen filed second appeal with the chief information commissioner of Gujarat, who ordered the PIO of the Gujarat High Court to provide information under RTI (as every citizen has the right to procure information in any lawful way he wishes too).
The PIO stood by his grounds, which did not convince the state CIC.
Relying upon Sections 6(2) and 22 of the RTI Act, the state CIC, in his order of April 2013, directed the PIO of Gujarat High Court to provide the information sought by the applicant within 20 days. But the PIO once again stood by his earlier stance.
The appellant then filed a case in the Gujarat High Court against the first appellate authority (FAA)’s order. The latter asked the PIO to provide information within four weeks adding a rider that supply of information by the High Court “shall not be construed as acceptance of applicability of RTI Act to the High Court.”
The PIO appealed to the HC division bench, which set aside the order of the chief information commissioner by observing that when a copy is demanded by any person, it has to be in accordance with the rules of the HC on the subject.
The appellant then approached the SC. The appellant’s senior counsel contended on 4 March 2020, that “In view of the inconsistency between the provisions of the RTI Act and the Gujarat High Court Rules, harmonious construction between the two is not possible; however, Section 22 of the RTI Act specifically provides that the provisions of the RTI Act will have an overriding effect over any other laws for the time being in force.”
The senior counsel also submitted that “the High Court Rules have been framed in exercise of the powers under Article 225 of the Constitution of India, which would be subject to any other law and the non-obstante clause in Section 22 of the RTI Act shows that the provisions of the RTI Act would override the High Court Rules.”
However, in its 4 March 2020 order, the three-judge bench of Justices R Banumathi, AS Bopanna and Hrishikesh Roy pronounced that insisting on providing information as per High Court rules is not inconsistent with the RTI Act.
Since the HC rules for procuring information already exists, the provisions of the RTI Act shall not be resorted to, the bench ruled.
Supreme Court order on 4th March 2020
“We summarise our conclusion:-
(i) Rule 151 of the Gujarat High Court Rules stipulating a third party to have access to the information/obtaining the certified copies of the documents or orders requires to file an application/affidavit stating the reasons for seeking the information, is not inconsistent with the provisions of the RTI Act; but merely lays down a different procedure as the practice or payment of fees, etc. for obtaining information. In the absence of inherent inconsistency between the provisions of the RTI Act and other law, overriding effect of RTI Act would not apply.
(ii) The information to be accessed/certified copies on the judicial side to be obtained through the mechanism provided under the High Court Rules, the provisions of the RTI Act shall not be resorted to.”
(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”