NEW DELHI – The Supreme Court on Wednesday held that the office of the Chief Justice of India is a public authority and falls within the ambit of the Right to Information Act.
A five-judge Constitution bench headed by Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi upheld the 2010 Delhi High Court verdict and dismissed three appeals filed by Secretary General of the Supreme Court and the Central Public Information officer of the apex court.
Cautioning that RTI cannot be used as a tool of surveillance, the top court in its judgement held that judicial independence has to be kept in mind while dealing with transparency.
The bench, also comprising Justices N V Ramana, D Y Chandrachud, Deepak Gupta and Sanjiv Khanna, said that only the names of judges recommended by the Collegium for appointment can be disclosed, not the reasons.
While the CJI and Justices Deepak Gupta and Sanjiv Khanna have penned one judgement, Justices Ramana and Chandrachud have written separate verdicts.
It said that the Right to Privacy is an important aspect and it has to be balanced with transparency while deciding to give out information from the office of the Chief Justice.
Justice Chandrachud, who wrote a separate judgment, said the judiciary cannot function in total insulation as Judges enjoy constitutional post and discharge public duty.
Justice Sanjiv Khanna said independence of judiciary and transparency go hand in hand.
Justice Ramana, who concurred with Justice Khanna, said there should be balancing formula for Right to Privacy and Right to transparency and independence of judiciary should be protected from breach.
The High Court on January 10, 2010 had held that the CJI office comes within the ambit of the RTI law, saying judicial independence was not a judge’s privilege, but a responsibility cast upon him.
The 88-page judgement was seen as a personal setback to the then CJI, K G Balakrishnan, who has been opposed to disclosure of information relating to judges under the RTI Act.
The high court verdict was delivered by a three-judge bench comprising Chief Justice A P Shah (since retired) and Justices Vikramjit Sen and S Muralidhar. The bench had dismissed a plea of the Supreme Court that contended bringing the CJI’s office within the RTI Act would “hamper” judicial independence.
Justice Sen retired as the judge of the apex court, while Justice Murlidhar is a sitting judge of the High Court.
The move to bring the office of the CJI under the transparency law was initiated by RTI activist S C Agrawal. His lawyer Prashant Bhushan had submitted in the top court that though the apex court should not have been judging its own cause, it is hearing the appeals due to “doctrine of necessity”.
The lawyer had described the reluctance of the judiciary in parting information under the Right To Information Act as “unfortunate” and “disturbing”, asking: “Do judges inhabit different universe?”
He had submitted that the apex court has always stood for transparency in functioning of other organs of State, but it develops cold feet when its own issues require attention.
Referring to the RTI provisions, Bhushan had said they also deal with exemptions and information that cannot be given to applicants, but the public interest should always “outweigh” personal interests if the person concerned is holding or about to hold a public office.
Dealing with “judicial independence”, he said the National Judicial Accountability Commission Act was struck down for protecting the judiciary against interference from the executive, but this did not mean that judiciary is free from “public scrutiny”.
Transparency activists hail SC decision on bringing CJI under RTI
Transparency activists on Wednesday welcomed the Supreme Court’s decision on bringing the office of the Chief Justice of India under the ambit of the RTI Act, saying the apex court has reiterated the established position in law in the matter.
“I welcome the decision of the constitution bench to reiterate the established position in law that the CJI is a public authority under the Right to Information (RTI) Act,” said Venkatesh Nayak, head of access to information programme, Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI), an NGO.
In a landmark verdict, a bench headed by Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi upheld the 2010 Delhi High Court verdict that the office of the Chief Justice of India comes within the ambit of the RTI law and dismissed the three appeals filed by Secretary General of the Supreme Court and the Central Public Information Officer of the apex court.
The top court said that only names of judges recommended by the Collegium for appointment can be disclosed, not the reasons.
Cautioning that RTI cannot be used as a tool of surveillance, it held that judicial independence has to be kept in mind while dealing with transparency.
About the Supreme Court’s remark that RTI cannot be used as a tool of surveillance, Nayak termed it as “extremely unfortunate” observation.
“It is extremely unfortunate that an observation has been made that RTI can be a tool for surveillance on the judiciary. Surveillance has unfortunately been equated with transparency that is required under a law duly passed by Parliament,” he told PTI.
Nayak said surveillance is what the government often does under executive instructions and that is not the purpose of the RTI Act.
“People whose cases relating to their life, liberty, property and rights are decided by the high courts and the Supreme Court. People have the right to know not only the criteria but all materials that formed the basis of making the decision regarding appointments of judges in accordance with the provisions of the RTI Act,” he said.
Nayak said where exemptions are available under the RTI Act, they will be legitimately invoked by public authorities and all other information should be in the public domain.
He said the appointment of judges, who are public functionary, is a public act.
“People have the right to know everything that is done in a public way by a government, in a democratic country, which must be accountable and responsible,”Nayak said.
Former information commissioner Shailesh Gandhi also hailed the top court’s decision.
“It is a very good decision of the SC. I had expected the same decision to come as logically there is nothing else. It is unfortunate that it has taken 10 years. The CIC has upheld this. The Delhi HC had also upheld this. Now, the SC has upheld this. All public servants that are paid by the government is a public service, no matter what the position is? You need to be accountable for your work. I congratulate the Chief Justice and the court for having given such a decision,” he said.
RTI activist Subhash Chandra Agrawal hailed the top court’s verdict.
“I welcome the Supreme Court’s verdict. It is a victory of the RTI Act,” he said.
Another activist Ajay Dubey said the apex court’s decision was “historic”.
“It is a historic decision and I welcome it. All decisions made by a public authority must be in public domain and under the RTI Act,” he said.
Dubey, however, expressed shock over the top court’s remark that RTI Act cannot be used as a tool of surveillance.
Chronology of events in office of Chief Justice of India falling under RTI Act case
Following is the chronology of events in the case in which a five-judge Constitution bench of the Supreme Court Wednesday upheld the 2010 Delhi High Court verdict which said that the office of the Chief Justice of India falls under the ambit of RTI Act.
– Nov 11, 2007: RTI activist Subhash C Aggarwal files a plea in the Supreme Court seeking information on judges’ assets.
– Nov 30: Information denied in the reply to him.
– Dec 8: First appeal filed at SC’s registry against the denial of information.
– Jan 12, 2008: First appeal dismissed by SC’s registry.
– Mar 5: Aggarwal approaches CIC.
– Jan 6, 2009: CIC asks SC to disclose information on Judges’ assets on the ground that CJI’s office comes within the ambit of RTI Act.
– Jan 17: SC moves Delhi HC against CIC order.
– Jan 19: The Delhi High Court stays CIC order; asks constitutional expert Fali S Nariman to assist it in deciding the legal issue. Nariman declines saying he is of the view that Judges must declare their assets and he would not be able to be impartial in the case.
– Feb 26: SC says that declaration of assets by its judges to the Chief Justice are “personal” information which cannot be revealed under the RTI Act.
– Mar 17: SC says its judges not averse to declaring their assets and Parliament can enact a law pertaining to such declaration but it must be ensured that the law is not misused.
– Mar 24: HC says that Judges cannot be treated like politicians on asset declaration.
– May 1: Delhi High Court Bar Association moves impleadment application in HC saying that Judges should voluntarily declare assets.
– May 4: SC says too much transparency can affect independence of judiciary.
– May 4: HC reserves order on SC plea.
– Sep 2: Single Bench of High Court upholds CIC’s order saying that CJI’s office comes within the ambit of RTI Act and judges’ assets be made public under the transparency law.
– Oct 5: The Apex Court challenges single bench verdict before division bench.
– Oct 6: HC agrees to give an urgent hearing to the Supreme Court’s petition.
– Oct 7: HC admits the appeal and constitutes a special three-judge bench to decide the issue.
– Nov 12: HC observes that the resolution passed by the Supreme Court judges for declaring their assets to CJI is binding on them.
– Nov 13: HC reserves judgment on the appeal.
– Jan 12, 2010: HC says the office of CJI comes within the ambit of the RTI Act.
– Nov 26: Secretary General of SC and CPIO file 3 appeals against the HC and CIC orders.
– Aug 17, 2016: SC refers the matter to a Constitution bench
– Apr 4, 2019: SC reserves verdict on whether CJI’s office is public authority under RTI Act
– Nov 13: SC upholds 2010 Delhi High Court verdict, holds office of the Chief Justice of India is a public authority and falls within the ambit of RTI.