Office of CJI is public authority under RTI, says SC

Supreme Court, New Delhi (PTI Photo)

In a progressive ruling on transparency, the Supreme Court on Wednesday held that the office of Chief Justice of India came within the ambit of the Right to Information Act.

A five-judge bench presided over by Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi said the judicial independence and transparency go hand-in-hand but at the same time there has to be a balance between the right to privacy and the right to information and the public interest.

“The public interest test would be applied to weigh the scales and on balance determine whether information should be furnished or would be exempt. Therefore, a universal affirmative or negative answer is not possible. However, independence of the judiciary is a matter of public interest,” the court said.

Three judgements were pronounced on the issue – one by CJI along with Justices Deepak Gupta and Sanjiv Khanna, one each by Justice N V Ramana and Justice D Y Chandrachud.

The bench by a unanimous view upheld the Delhi High Court's 2010 judgements, dismissing the appeals filed by the Supreme Court Secretary General and its Central Public Information Officer.

The top court held furnishing information on the judges of the Supreme Court who had declared their assets, would not, in any way, impinge upon the personal information and right to privacy. With regard to information sought by RTI activist Subhash C Agrawal on supersession of judges, the court remanded the matter back to the CPIO for reconsideration as those concerned details on third parties.

The court had on April 4 reserved its verdict in the matter, where Attorney General K K Venugopal contended disclosing deliberations of Collegium in appointing or overlooking senior judges would open "pandora's box" and this would adversely affect the independence of the judiciary.

The top court said, “When the public interest demands the disclosure of information, judicial independence has to be kept in mind while deciding the question of exercise of discretion.”

 

“However, we should not be understood to mean that the independence of the judiciary can be achieved only by denial of access to information. Independence in a given case may well demand openness and

transparency by furnishing the information,” the bench added.

In his separate and concurring verdict, Justice Ramana said, the right to information should not be allowed to be used as a tool of surveillance to scuttle effective functioning of the judiciary. He gave a list of factors to be considered in public interest like nature and content of the information, consequences of non-disclosure; dangers and benefits to the public, type of confidential obligation, the belief of the confidant, reasonable suspicion, the party to whom information is disclosed, among others in responding to RTI requests.

Justice Ramana said there was an urgent requirement for integrating the principles of data protection into the right to information jurisprudence. He also stressed on balancing the aspect of transparency, judicial independence and the RTI Act.

Justice Chandrachud, in his own verdict, said the giving information on judges of the Supreme Court, who have declared their assets does not constitute the personal information of the judges and does not engage the right to privacy.

He also favoured for making public Collegium's decisions. He said there was a vital public interest in disclosing the basis on which those with judicial experience are evaluated for elevation to higher judicial office particularly having regard to merit, integrity and judicial performance. Placing the criteria followed in making judicial appointments in the public domain will fulfil the purpose and mandate of Section 4 of the RTI Act, engender public confidence in the process and provides a safeguard against extraneous considerations entering into the process.

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