16th November – Explained – What bringing the Chief Justice of India’s office under RTI means

On Wednesday, the Supreme Court ruled that the office of the Chief Justice of India (CJI) is a public authority under the Right to Information (RTI) Act.

Background –

  • The judgment pertained to three cases based on requests for information filed by Delhi-based RTI activist Subhash Agarwal, all of which eventually reached the Supreme Court.
  • While the CPIO of the Supreme Court said the office of the CJI was not a public authority under the RTI Act, the matter reached the Chief Information Commissioner (CIC) where a full Bench, headed by then CIC Wajahat Habibullah, on January 6, 2009 directed disclosure of information.
  • The Supreme Court approached the Delhi High Court against the CIC order. High Court Justice Ravindra Bhatt (who was later elevated as a Supreme Court judge) held on September 2, 2009 that “the office of the Chief Justice of India is a public authority under the RTI Act and is covered by its provisions”.
  • The Supreme Court then approached a larger Bench comprising then Chief Justice of Delhi High Court Ajit Prakash Shah, Justice Vikramjit Sen, and Justice S Muralidhar, which passed its judgment on January 13, 2010 holding that the judgment of Justice Bhatt was “both proper and valid and needs no interference”.

The latest judgement –

  • While ruling that the office of the CJI is a public authority, the Supreme Court held that RTI cannot be used as a tool of surveillance and that judicial independence has to be kept in mind while dealing with transparency. While CJI Gogoi, Justice Gupta and Justice Khanna wrote one judgment, Justices Ramana and Chandrachud wrote separate verdicts.
  • Justice Ramana noted that 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.
  • Justice Chandrachud wrote in his separate judgment that the judiciary cannot function in total insulation as judges enjoy a constitutional post and discharge public duty.
  • The verdict underlines the balance Supreme Court needs between transparency and protecting its independence. The step is significant because it opens the doors to RTI requests that will test the frontiers of what has been a rather opaque system.

What the order means

The outcome is that the office of the CJI will now entertain RTI applications.

  • Under Section 2(f) of the RTI Act, information means “any material in any form, including records, documents, memos, e-mails, opinions, advices, press releases, circulars, orders, logbooks, contracts, reports, papers, samples, models, data material held in any electronic form and information relating to any private body which can be accessed by a public authority under any other law for the time being in force”.
  • Whether a public authority discloses the information sought or not, however, is a different matter. Offices such as those of the Prime Minister and the President too are public authorities under the RTI Act.
  • Public authorities have often denied information quoting separate observations by the Supreme Court itself in 2011: “Officials need to furnish only such information which already exists and is held by the public authority and not collate or create information”; and, “the nation does not want a scenario where 75% of the staff of public authorities spends 75% of their time in collecting and furnishing information to applicants instead of discharging their regular duties”.

SourceThe Indian Express

QUESTIONThe opening up of the Office of CJI to RTI applications is the first ray of sunlight into the dark chambers of Supreme Court. Comment.

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