13th NOVEMBER, 2019
|RAJYA SABHA TELEVISION|
THE BIG PICTURE: CJI COMES UNDER RTI ACT
The Chief Justice of India is a public authority and his office comes under the Right to Information (RTI) Act, the Supreme Court ruled today in a landmark judgment, emphasizing that “in a constitutional democracy, judges can’t be above the law”.
Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi and three future Chief Justices were part of the constitution bench that agreed that transparency and accountability go hand-in-hand. The judges reaffirmed a 2010 Delhi High Court judgment and dismissed appeals by the Secretary General and Central Public Information Officer of the Supreme Court.
The decision of the bench was penned by a 3:2 majority as Justice Ramana and Justice Chandrachud has given separate judgment.
Background of the case
- In 2007, RTI activist Subhash Chandra Aggarwal filed an RTI and asked for details of the assets of the judges. When his application was rejected, the matter reached the Central Information Commissioner (CIC) and CIC asked for information.
- After that, the matter was challenged in Delhi High court. The High court said that the office of CJI comes under RTI but it was again challenged in Supreme Court. A hearing was held in the Supreme Court in April 2019 and the court had reserved the verdict.
Delhi High Court’s Judgment in 2010
- The Delhi High Court had said in a judgment on 10 January 2010 that the office of the Chief Justice comes under the purview of the RTI Act. The Delhi High court said that judicial independence is not the privilege of the judge, but a responsibility on him. The High Court rejected the appeal of the apex court that judicial independence would be ‘obstructed’ by bringing the CJI office under the purview of RTI.
- The High Court rejected the plea of the apex court that judicial independence would be ‘obstructed’ by bringing the CJI office under the purview of RTI. The General Secretary of the Supreme Court filed a petition against the decision and now SC has announced its verdict.
- Attorney General (AG) KK Venugopal, representing the Central Public Information Officer (CPIO) of the Supreme Court, had said that sharing of information related to the collegium under the CJI’s office would embarrass the judges and the government and destroy judicial freedom.
- The Right to Information and Right to Privacy are two sides of the same coin. None can take precedence over the other,” the court said in a judgment that said the Chief Justice’s office comes under the transparency law.
- Bringing the office of the highest officials of the Apex Court under RTI will make the judiciary more accountable and it will increase the credibility of the judiciary in the eye of the public.
- Justice Chandrachud said the judiciary cannot function in total insulation as judges enjoy a constitutional post and discharge a public duty.
- Justice Ramana said there should be balancing formula for the Right to Privacy and the Right to transparency, and the independence of the judiciary should be protected from any breach.
Which body comes under it?
Within the meaning of section 2 (H) of the RTI
- Act only to the public authority
- Any authority established by or under the constitution becomes public authority
- Any authority by a law enacted by a parliament, state assembly, government order, notification etc
- Any authority which is substantially funded by the government directly or indirectly
Why the judiciary was reluctant to come under ambit of RTI?
- After the Delhi high court verdict, many judges of many high courts declared their assets as sought under RTI act, this put the extra pressure on the chief justice of India to bring its office under the ambit of RTI.
- But in ADR case, the SC had ruled about the elected representatives, that it was incumbent upon them to declare their assets, liabilities, educational qualifications and criminal antecedents if any.
- The judiciary has always used the shield of independence of the judiciary to bypass any reform to judiciary. Subsequently the Supreme Court has declared National judicial appointment commission (NJAC) unconstitutional.
The way forward
- The Supreme Court has issued the doctrine of proportionality vis-à-vis right to privacy on the independence of the judiciary. Judicial independency and accountability go hand in hand.
- The “doctrine of proportionality” if it would have been applied to other wings of government would have ended up with judiciary rejecting it saying that we cannot read into the statutory provisions of certain doctrines merely because it suits the convenience of the person in question
- This judgment spells out the need to reconcile the judiciary under article 124 with the obligations of the judiciary to be a transparent institution under the RTI act.