The jury is out on whether the judiciary has over the years played the role it ought to while dealing with matters pertaining to promoting transparency in general and the Right to Information (RTI) Act in particular. Legal luminaries and RTI activists alike believe the court’s must play a more supportive role if greater transparency in public life is to be achieved.
A recent report titled ‘Tilting the Balance of Power – Adjudicating the RTI Act’ by the Satark Nagrik Sangathan (SNS) and the Research, Assessment and Analysis Group (RaaG), notes that before the RTI law was passed, the judiciary played a seminal role in recognising and furthering peoples’ right to information in India. In fact, as far back as 1975, 30 years before the RTI law was enacted, the Supreme Court adjudged the right to information to be a fundamental right.
Besides being the final adjudicatory authority for the law, the Supreme Court and high courts are also public authorities under the RTI Act. The report, authored by RTI activists Amrita Johri, Anjali Bhardwaj and Shekhar Singh, suggests that the RTI Act appears to be facing resistance from the courts, especially when information is sought about their functioning as public authorities.
Is RTI facing resistance from the judiciary?
In the last ten years, scores of RTI applications have been filed by citizens seeking information from the courts, many of which have required judicial adjudication. Five such matters reached the Supreme Court, three of which were referred to a constitution bench that is yet to be set up. The other two cases were dismissed by the apex court at the stage of admission. About the cases that were dismissed, the RaaG-SNS report notes:
“Unfortunately, these cases raised matters of great public interest but were dismissed by the SC without providing any details or reasons in their orders. One of them sought information using the RTI Act, about cases pending with the Supreme Court in which the arguments had already been heard but orders had been reserved. In the other matter, the applicant sought the total amount of medical expenses of individual judges reimbursed by the Supreme Court, citing a Delhi high court ruling of 2010 which stated that, ‘The information on the expenditure of the government money in an official capacity cannot be termed as personal information’.”
Information denied on appointment of judges
In one of the three cases referred to the constitution bench, an RTI applicant filed a request to the Supreme Court in 2009 seeking a copy of the complete correspondence, with file notings, exchanged between the chief justice of India (CJI) and other concerned constitutional authorities relating to the appointment of Justice H.L. Dattu, Justice A. K. Ganguly and Justice R.M. Lodha as judges of the Supreme Court, superseding the seniority of Justice A.P. Shah, Justice A.K. Patnaik and Justice V.K. Gupta. The information sought was denied. When the Central Information Commission (CIC) directed that the information be furnished, the information officer of the apex court appealed directly to the Supreme Court against the order.
CIC order on assets of judges challenged before apex court
In the second case, the RTI applicant asked if any declaration of assets was ever filed by the judges of the Supreme Court or high courts to the respective CJIs. The Supreme Court’s 1997 resolution requires judges to declare to the CJI the assets held by them in their own name, in the name of their spouse or any person dependent on them. The information was denied but the CIC directed that the information sought by the applicant be provided. The CIC order was challenged by the Supreme Court in the Delhi high court, which held that the contents of asset declarations were entitled to be treated as personal information under Section 8(1)(j) of the RTI Act, but since the applicant only sought to know whether the 1997 resolution was complied with, the sought information should be provided. A three-judge bench of the high court stated:
“…A judge must keep himself absolutely above suspicion, to preserve the impartiality and independence of the judiciary and to have the public confidence thereof.…Accountability of the judiciary cannot be seen in isolation. It must be viewed in the context of a general trend to render governors answerable to the people in ways that are transparent, accessible and effective. Well defined and publicly known standards and procedures complement, rather than diminish, the notion of judicial independence. Democracy expects openness and openness is concomitant of free society. Sunlight is the best disinfectant.’’
This judgement was subsequently challenged by the chief public information officer before the Supreme Court.
In the third case, quoting a media report, an RTI application was filed with the Supreme Court seeking copies of correspondence between the then CJI and a judge of the Madras high court regarding the attempt of a union minister to influence judicial decisions of the said high court. The applicant also sought information regarding the name of the concerned union minister. The CIC, in its order, overturned the decision of the public information officer, which denied the information sought. Bypassing the Delhi high court, the public information officer of the Supreme Court directly moved a petition before the SC challenging the CIC order to disclose information.
Three cases clubbed together
In its order, the Supreme Court, while hearing the case related to correspondence between the CJI and other constitutional authorities about the appointment of judges, clubbed the other two cases with the matter. The apex court order stated that the consideration of a larger bench was required as grave constitutional issues were at stake, including the need to balance the independence of the judiciary and the fundamental constitutional right of citizens to freedom of speech and expression.
The court listed three sets of questions which, according to them, raised substantial questions of law as to the interpretation of the constitution:
- Whether the concept of independence of judiciary requires and demands the prohibition of furnishing of the information sought? Whether the information sought for amounts to interference in the functioning of the judiciary?
- Whether the information sought for cannot be furnished to avoid any erosion in the credibility of the decisions and to ensure a free and frank expression of honest opinion by all the constitutional functionaries, which is essential for effective consultation and for taking the right decision?
- Whether the information sought for is personal information and therefore exempt under Section 8(1)(j) of the Right to Information Act?
The report by RaaG and SNS notes that while the first two sets of questions do seem to relate to constitutional issues, like the adverse impact peoples’ right to information might have on judicial independence, or amount to interference in the functioning of the judiciary, or compromise its credibility, it is not clear how the third question relating to exemption on grounds that it is personal information under section 8(1)(j) of the RTI Act raises any constitutional concerns.
The report goes on to highlight the contradictions inherent in the stand taken by courts in these matters by quoting judgements of the Supreme Court in which the court has itself discussed one or more of these issues in relation to the judiciary and other public functionaries and ruled in favour of transparency. For instance, the Supreme Court in Manohar s/o Manikrao Anchule vs State of Maharashtra & Anr in 2012 stated that “It cannot be doubted that transparency is the sine qua non of restraint on abuse of judicial powers. Transparency in decision-making not only makes the judges and decision-makers less prone to errors but also makes them subject to broader scrutiny.”
In Union of India vs Association for Democratic Reforms, 2002, the court directed the Election Commission to call for information from all candidates seeking election to parliament or a state legislature, and from their spouses and dependants, about their assets as, “…there are widespread allegations of corruption against the persons holding post and power. In such a situation, question is not of knowing personal affairs but to have openness in democracy for attempting to cure cancerous growth of corruptions by few rays of light. Hence, citizens who elect MPs or MLAs are entitled to know that their representative has not miscomputed himself in collecting wealth after being elected.”
In PUCL vs Union of India in 2003, while examining the plea that contesting candidates should not be required to disclose the assets and liabilities of their spouses as it would violate the right to privacy of the spouses, the Supreme Court held that the fundamental right to information of a voter and citizen is promoted when contesting candidates are required to disclose the assets and liabilities of their spouses. The SC ruled that when there is a competition between the right to privacy of an individual and the right to information of the citizens, the former right has to be subordinated to the latter right, as the latter serves a larger public interest.
Similarly, to ensure transparency and improve the process of selection of judges in Supreme Court in Advocates-on-Record Association and Ors. vs Union of India in 2015, a five-judge bench laid down broad guidelines for the government of India which was tasked with the responsibility of preparing the Memorandum of Procedure for the appointment of judges. Among other things, the guidelines stated that the eligibility criteria and procedure for selection of judges must be transparent and put up on the website of the court concerned and the department of justice. In addition, they required the provision of an appropriate procedure for minuting the discussions including recording the dissenting opinion of the judges in the collegium.
Supreme Court’s changing position
Former information commissioner Shailesh Gandhi believes the Supreme Court’s stance towards RTI has changed in the past few years.
“If I look at the Supreme Court judgments on transparency and Right to Information before the Act came in 2005 and after the Act, it looks like these are two different countries, two different courts,” he said. Gandhi said he had earlier come out with another report which showed how out of 17 orders of the SC on RTI, in only two it ordered information to be given.
On what could have prompted the change, he said, “I can guess very easily. Before the RTI Act came freedom of speech was fine but nobody questioned the court and nobody tried to find out anything about the courts and people would only say, “I have great faith in the judiciary”. The Right to Information for the first time changed that paradigm. A reporter of any newspaper would be wary of what he writes as far as the judiciary is concerned. But RTI people started asking all kind of inconvenient questions. And some things have come out which have been very unpalatable, to say the least.”
Gandhi said now the judiciary refuses to look at RTI applications that have anything to do with them. “When you are in a public office and right to information is there, people will ask all kinds of things. When I was a commissioner, someone had filed an RTI application asking how much bribe Shailesh Gandhi has taken in the last two years. Now, things like this can be upsetting to people. And in my opinion, that is why they have gone against transparency and RTI Act.”
He said that often the judiciary has been very direct in showing its anger against the RTI. “In the first CBSE judgment, they said RTI should not be allowed to damage the peace, integrity and harmony of India. Such a view is okay for terrorists, but not for citizens. I have noticed over time that everyone in power dislikes being transparent.”
Recalling how the website of the Supreme Court was probably the best which existed under Section 4(1)(b) when he was the chief information commissioner, the first chief of the CIC, Wajahat Habibullah said he also, however, understands that having a website and making disclosures are two different things. “And therefore it is quite possible that in this case the Supreme Court has not been very favourably inclined towards the RTI. It simply means that the current phase of RTI in the courts is one that is defensive. It is not anti-RTI, it is more defensive in terms of the openness of the RTI.”
‘Judiciary too resists accountability’
Senior advocate Prashant Bhushan concurred that the judiciary too does not like transparency when it concerns its own accountability. “Unfortunately we have seen that when it comes to themselves, the courts do not want any accountability or any transparency and this we have seen in all kinds of issues.”
For example, he said, “in judicial appointments, the court shies away from transparency, by and large, some judges are exceptions who ask for it, but otherwise they don’t want transparency. Same thing happens with accountability. They don’t want any accountability and, in fact, they have progressively whittled down their accountability.”
Habibullah believes that at the moment “RTI is facing challenges”.
“When I was there [as the Chief Information Commissioner] my dealing was basically at the high court level as there were few cases in the Supreme Court then. The high court decisions were generally very supportive of the RTI. It was the time of the actual establishment of the jurisdiction or expanse of the RTI and these orders were very constructive. Now it is passing through a different phase where there has been some sort of a retreat,” he said.
‘Public pressure can change the tune’
Bhushan said the judiciary has also very often taken contempt action against people who have written anything against the judiciary or the judges. “Therefore, it is very clear that by and large judges do not want any accountability, nor any transparency. And that is why now that the RTI Act has also been applied to them they are passing judicial orders basically obstructing the orders of the CIC. This is what has happened. Ultimately these matters are for the courts to decide. But once there is sufficient public opinion then probably they will change their tune.”
According to Bhardwaj of SNS, given the extremely progressive orders related to transparency by the Supreme Court before the RTI Act was passed, people expect the judiciary to champion the cause of transparency and expand the scope of the law. “The reluctance of the judiciary to submit itself to the RTI Act is very concerning and we really hope that the constitution bench will give a progressive ruling on the questions referred to it. One of the main objectives of the RaaG-SNS report is to provoke a public debate on the manner in which the RTI Act is being interpreted by the adjudicators and to mobilise public opinion to demand greater openness in the functioning of all public authorities including the courts.”