CJI Comes Under The Ambit Of RTI Act: Supreme Court

  • On 13th November, 2019, in a historic judgment, the Supreme Court (SC) held that the office of Chief Justice of India is a public authority under the Right to Information (RTI) Act.
  • The Constitution Bench upheld the 2010 judgment of Delhi High Court which had held that RTI Act was applicable to CJI's office.
  • The five-judge bench of Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi, Justice NV Ramana, Justice DY Chandrachud, Justice Deepak Gupta and Justice Sanjiv Khanna pronounced the verdict with a 3:2

Background

  • In November 2007, an RTI activist Subhash Chandra Aggarwal had filed an RTI in the Supreme Court seeking information on judges' assets but the information was denied. He then approached the Central Information Commission (CIC) which asked the apex court to disclose information on the ground that the Chief Justice of India's office comes within the ambit of the Act.
  • In January 2009, a plea was moved in the Delhi High Court (HC) against the CIC order but the same was upheld.
  • In January 2010, the Delhi HC had held that the office of the Chief Justice of India comes within the ambit of the Right to Information (RTI) law, saying judicial independence was not a judge’s privilege, but a responsibility cast upon him.
  • In April 2019, the SC bench had reserved its verdict on the appeals.

What did SC Rule?

  • The Supreme Court has held that the office of the Chief Justice of India comes under the definition of ‘public authority’ as per the article 124 of the Constitution.
  • Right to Privacy is an important aspect and has to be balanced with transparency while deciding to give out information from the office of the Chief Justice of India.
  • The judiciary cannot function in total insulation as judges enjoy a constitutional post and discharge public duty.
  • Transparency and accountability should go hand-in-hand and increased transparency under RTI is no threat to judicial independence.However, RTI cannot be used as a tool of surveillance and that judicial independence has to be kept in mind while dealing with transparency.
  • Personal information of judges should only be divulged under RTI if such disclosure served the larger public interest.
  • The information about assets of judges and official communication during the process of elevation of judges to the Supreme Court are treated as confidential third-party information.
  • On the matter related to appointment of Judges, SC said that only names of judges recommended by the collegium can be disclosed, not the reasons.
  • The Bench, however, agreed, that the right to know under RTI was not absolute. The right to know of a citizenought to be balanced with the right to privacy of individual judges.

Right to Information (RTI) Act

  • RTI Act was promulgated in 2005 to promote transparency and accountability in the working of every public authority.
  • It is an initiative taken by Department of Personnel and Training, Ministry of Personnel, Public Grievances and Pensions to provide a– RTI Portal Gateway to the citizens for quick search of information on the details of first Appellate Authorities,PIOs etc. amongst others, besides access to RTI related information / disclosures published on the web by various Public Authorities under the government of India as well as the State Governments.
Objective
  • To empower the citizens,promote transparency and accountability in the working of the Government, contain corruption, and make our democracy work for the people in real sense

Impact

  • It is significant as it opens the doors to RTI requests that will test the frontiers of what has been a rather opaque system. Now, the office of the CJI will now entertain RTI applications under Section 2(f) of the RTI Act.The verdict emphasizes the balance Supreme Court needs between transparency and protecting its independence.
  • The disclosure of information can highlight areas where robust mechanisms of oversight and accountability are required.
  • It sends a strong signal to all democratic institutions to adhere to the twin principles of transparency and accountability underlining the RTI Act.

Way Forward

  • The hallmark of every democracy is accountability. Independence of judiciary doesn’t mean independence from accountability. Every institution is accountable to another institution which is independent of itself. Independence of judiciary does not and cannot be forced to be interpreted as supremacy of judiciary.
  • The judiciary carries the trust of the people and is accountable to the people. It is the real guardian of the fundamental rights of the people. Hence an endorsement from the bench headed by CJI will give fillip to people’s quest for transparency and accountability, necessary for the development as well as the social change of the country.

Source : Civil Services Chronicle Online, November, 2019