Madras HC Orders Feasibility Check on Fixing Time Limit for RTI Responses

The court also directed the government’s counsel to see if a separate email id can be created for enabling the disposal of life and liberty matters within 48 hours.

New Delhi: In an order that could have a far-reaching impact on the speedy disposal of appeals filed under the Right to Information Act, the Madras high court recently asked the additional advocate general to “get instructions on the feasibility of fixing the time limit” for the disposal of first appeals and the second appeals. It also directed the AAG to get instructions on the provisions of creating a separate email ID for giving lesser time, preferably 48 hours, for cases involving life and liberty.

The order was passed by a bench of Justices M.M. Sundresh and R. Hemalatha on a petition filed by Saurav Das, an independent journalist and member of the National Campaign for People’s Right to Information (NCPRI). The bench passed the order after hearing the petitioner’s counsel, M.V. Swaroop, and the AAG, who was appearing for the state. The respondents in the case are the Department of Personnel and Training under the Union of India, Personnel and Administrative Reforms Department of Tamil Nadu, the Central Information Commission and the Tamil Nadu Information Commission.

The court recorded in the order that “there are two issues of importance that have emerged upon hearing”.

`Explore fixing time limit for first, second appeal’

It said, “the first is with respect to the time limit for disposal of First Appeal and the Second Appeal which is in force insofar as the original authorities from whom the information is sought for.” In connection with this aspect, the bench said the “Additional Advocate General is directed to get instructions on the feasibility of fixing the time limit.”

The second issue, it noted, concerned “the information sought for qua life and liberty cases.” In this it said the petitioner’s counsel submitted that a separate e-mail id may be created for such cases. Swaroop had also submitted that proviso to Section 7(1) of the Right to Information Act, 2005 also stipulates the same.

CIC had advised CPIOs on email ID for life and liberty matters

The bench noted that the petitioner’s counsel had also relied on an order passed by the Central Information Commission in April 2020 in which it stated: “A report on the action taken on the advisory may be sent to the Commission by the Secretary, DoPT within 7 days from the date of withdrawal of lockdown.”

The CIC had further stated that, “Due to the ongoing pandemic of coronavirus in the country and the prevalent lock down, the Commission finds it appropriate to highlight the issue of Sec 7(1) implementation by citizens more so, when postal receipt of RTI applications are minimal, in such situations all public authorities should encourage RTI applications through e-mail in case of life and liberty matter.”

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It had advised that “a unique e-mail id can be created by the CPIOs in this regard and reflected in their respective website. A method of online acceptance of RTI fees also has be thought of in this regard.” Further, stating that “in so far as the other normal RTIs are concerned the RTI portal can be used”, the CIC had noted that “the Deputy Registrar is directed to circulate this order widely to the public authorities related to the Registry.”

Bench to now hear matter on September 30

Taking the CIC’s view into account, the bench directed the AAG “to get instructions on the provisions of creating separate email id giving lesser time preferably 48 hours for such of those cases involving life and liberty.” It thereafter posted the matter for further hearing on September 30.

Agreeing with the view of the petitioners that there should be a deadline for cases at Commissions, he asked the central counsels to get back with instructions on what could be a reasonable time frame.

RTI activists are enthused with the developments in this case as it has been their longstanding demand that cases and appeals be disposed of in a time-bound manner. The petitioner in this case is seeking a 1.3-3 months’ timeline for such disposal. The next hearing on September 30 is crucial in that respect.

`Core of the RTI Act is speed’

The petition had pointed out how “the legislative intent behind the enactment of the RTI Act is to foster transparency and accountability in the working of every Public Authority, bridge the gap between the information provider and the information seeker, enhance efficiency in administration of public authorities, mitigate corruption and promote good governance.”

Further, it said, “the core of the RTI Act is the speed at which the machinery is supposed to work, in order that the citizenry is always aware of how the Government is working for them. By leaving extraordinary pendency at the Commission, the speed has been completely compromised.”

Stating that under the Act, the public information officer is required to reply to an application seeking information within 30 days, information concerning life and liberty within 48 hours, and the first appeal is supposed to be replied to in 30 days, the petition noted that no timelines have been prescribed for second appeals or complaints under Section 18 against information officers.

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The petition noted that while the term “life and liberty” has not been defined under the Act, it uses them in the same sense that they are used in Article 21 of the Constitution and therefore subjects such as health, crime, detention, police actions, privacy and policy actions having direct and immediate consequences come under this broad head.

However, it lamented that “the deadline of 48 hours for responding to such applications is followed more in breach”. It even cited an instance “where the information in a case held by the CIC to be a `life and liberty’ case has been disposed of almost three years after it was filed.”

Delays leading to mounting pendency of complaints and appeals

The petition also pointed out how the ‘Report Card of Information Commissions in India’, 2019 released by Satark Nagrik Sangathan and Centre for Equity Studies (CES), had found that on average the CIC takes 388 days (more than one year) to dispose of an appeal/complaint from the date that it was filed before the commission.

The petition had also stressed the necessity for quick disposal, saying in the absence of fixed timelines, the pendency of cases before the CIC and TN SIC have become unmanageable. In the case of CIC alone, it said, as on August 6, 2020, there were a total of 35,737 cases pending before it and these included 4,804 complaints and 30,933 appeals.

In light of these facts and circumstances, the petition had urged the court to direct the Centre and state government to issue guidelines and prescribe or fix a time limit to second appeals and complaints filed under Sections 19(3) and 18 of the RTI Act.