New Delhi: In a matter pertaining to bringing political parties under the Right to Information Act, the Central Information Commission recently reminded the Department of Personnel and Training, the nodal Central government department for RTI matters, that “sub judice is not a ground for denial under Section 8(1)(b) of the RTI Act”.
The RTI application in the matter was filed by Yash Paul Manvi on July 17, 2019. He had sought a copy of the reply filed by DOPT regarding Writ (Civil) No. 333/2015 in the Supreme Court.
The same year in the month of March, the Supreme Court had taken up a petition filed jointly by the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR) and RTI activist Subhash Chandra Agrawal to hold national political parties accountable under the RTI Act.
The Central Information Commission had earlier in June 2013 ruled that political parties come within the ambit of the transparency law, but the parties continued to insist that they cannot be considered public authorities under the Act.
The Centre had in January 2018 submitted before the apex court that political parties should not be brought under the ambit of RTI Act by terming them ‘public authorities’, as this would not only hamper their smooth functioning but also help their political rivals file pleas with malicious intention under the guise of seeking information.
The matter is still pending before the Supreme Court. In December 2020, the Centre had filed a petition in the Delhi high court in which it averred that the issue as to whether political parties are under the ambit of RTI Act 2005 is pending adjudication/consideration before the Supreme Court.
Appellant moved CIC saying CPIO refused information without valid reason
In this backdrop, the application filed by Manvi assumed significance. The central information commissioner, Saroj Punhani, recorded in her order that the CPIO of DoPT had in response to the appellant on August 16, 2019 stated that “the matter is sub judice in the Supreme Court of India”. Dissatisfied with the reply and the First Appellate Authority’s upholding of the same, the appellant approached the Commission with the Second Appeal.
During the hearing of the appeal on June 1 this year, Manvi said he was aggrieved with the CPIO’s reply as no exemption clause of the RTI Act has been claimed therein for denying the information to him. The CPIO submitted that the exemption of Section 8(1)(b) of the RTI Act will be applicable in the matter as the subject case is sub judice.
To a query from the Commission, Punhani recorded in the order, the CPIO elaborated that “the writ petition was related to the subject matter of the amenability of political parties to the provisions of the RTI Act and urged that the disclosure of the information during the pendency of the case will lead to the disclosure of the legal opinion received by the government.”
CIC finds CPIO’s ground of denying information “untenable”
However, the Commission did not agree with this view. In her decision, Punhani said, “the original reply of the CPIO did not claim any exemption permissible under the RTI Act for denying the information sought.” She added that CPIO’s claim that the invoking Section 8(1)(b) of the RTI Act on the premise that the averred matter was sub judice was also “untenable as sub judice is not a ground for denial” under the section which pertains to “information which has been expressly forbidden to be published by any court of law or tribunal or the disclosure of which may constitute contempt of court.”
Noting that the arguments of the CPIO do not justify the applicability of the said exemption, Punhani, however, added that since the official had also stated that the information sought contains the legal opinion received by the department and disclosing the same during the pendency of the matter is not desired, the Commission was therefore of the opinion that Section 8(1)(e) of the RTI Act appears to be applicable in the facts of the case.
CIC cites SC observations on attorney-client relationship, fiduciary relationship to deny information
In this regard, she mentioned an observation of the Supreme Court in the matter of B.P Singhal vs. Union of India (2010) wherein it was stated: “41….Though the Attorney General holds a public office, there is an element of lawyer-client relationship between the Union Government and the Attorney General….’ (Emphasis Supplied)”.
Punhani also relied on another ruling of the Supreme Court in CBSE vs Aditya Bandhyopadhyay (2011) in which the apex court dwelt on the meaning and import of the term ‘’fiduciary” and stated: “22….. But the words `information available to a person in his fiduciary relationship’ are used in section 8(1)(e) of RTI Act in its normal and well recognized sense, that is to refer to persons who act in a fiduciary capacity, with reference to a specific beneficiary or beneficiaries who are to be expected to be protected or benefited by the actions of the fiduciary…”
Punhani stated in the order that “upon a conjoint reading of the above case laws, it will not be out of place to infer that regardless of the fact that the legal opinion sought pertains to a government appointed law officer to a public authority, the existence of a lawyer-client relationship between the two cannot be negated and consequently, the protection afforded under Section 8(1)(e) of RTI Act is available to such legal opinion by virtue of the fiduciary element subsisting therein.”
She therefore accepted the denial of information by the CPIO, saying it was “in line with the exemption of Section 8(1)(e) of the RTI Act.”