Why SC Disallowing RTI Requests for Pleadings Is a Missed Opportunity

Given that the court room is supposed to be a public place, it must follow that pleadings are treated as public documents.

On March 4, the Supreme Court restricted the application of the Right to Information Act, 2005 to Indian courts.

A three-judge bench led by Justice R. Banumathi held that citizens could not file Right to Information (‘RTI’) requests to obtain pleadings in the Gujarat high court (GHC).

The judgment held that the RTI Act cannot override the relevant GHC rules for obtaining pleadings. Pleadings are written documents filed by litigants, which contain their claims.

“These are the most important source of information,” to understand a legal dispute, asserts Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy’s Open Data Policy report. Unfortunately, this judgment likely establishes a precedent that will not only apply to the GHC, but all other high courts and perhaps the Supreme Court itself.

Given the cumbersome and arbitrary nature of the existing procedure under the court rules, the judgment marks a missed opportunity for making pleadings more accessible and the courts more accountable. 

Also read: SC and RTI: Why the Top Court Should Lead the Way in Ensuring Transparency

The Consistency Conundrum

The judgment primarily turned on the issue of whether the existing GHC rules for obtaining pleadings are in conflict with the RTI Act. Relying on R.S. Ragunath v. State of Karnataka, Justice Banumathi reasoned that only if the rules were in conflict with the RTI Act, would the Act prevail.

Attempting to show such a conflict, the appellants pointed out that the rules require citizens seeking pleadings to file an affidavit, demonstrating that they have legitimate reasons for requesting the information.

On the other hand, the RTI Act presumes that all information is in the public domain (unless proven otherwise).

Section 6(2) specifically states that persons requesting information do not have to provide “any reason for requesting the information”.

Also read: After Saying CAA Is ‘Internal Matter’, Centre Withholds Info on It Citing Foreign Ties

Despite this, the Bench concluded that there was no conflict and observed that the rules were simply in place to “satisfy the court that the information is sought for bona fide reasons to effectuate public interest”.

It is unclear how the Act and the rules could be construed to be consistent with each other. While the Act entitles citizens to information, the rules require citizens to justify their request for information.

While courts should have the power to deny citizens of information in certain circumstances, such as those involving the privacy rights of others, the burden should not lie with citizens to justify their requests for information.

As the Court recently observed in its Subhash Chandra Agarwal judgment, its Chief Public Information Officers must carefully weigh whether fulfilling an RTI request is in the larger public interest. However, it does not follow that there should be a strict requirement for citizens to convince the courts that they deserve information in the first place.

The RTI Act provides a framework for deliberation over information requests without such a strict requirement. 

Discretion and costs

A further and related issue is that only the RTI Act provides clearly defined grounds for when information requests can be rejected. The rules of the various high courts and Supreme Court place excessive discretionary power with court registrars.

As Vidhi’s report illustrates, registrars may reject information requests for extremely vague reasons, making the process highly arbitrary. Further, the rules do not generally offer any safeguards to persons requesting information, such as prescribed time periods or penalties for malafide rejection.

Perhaps even more crucially, a rejected RTI request can always be appealed to the Central Information Commission. In effect, the RTI Act offers a more substantive guarantee of information than established high court and Supreme Court procedures. 

Of course, there is also the issue of whether fulfilling information requests can place an excessive financial burden on the courts. As Justice Banumathi highlights, the preamble of the RTI Act states that transparency cannot come at the cost of a disproportionate diversion of resources.

Also read: SC Rejects RTI Request for Details of Panel Which Exonerated Justice Gogoi

Perhaps there is an argument to be made that opening up the courts to RTI requests in so far as pleadings are concerned, may place a larger financial burden on the courts. After all, the current system gives the courts wide discretion over how many requests they respond to and at what rate.

However, purely financial concerns cannot restrict the guarantee of a right as fundamental as the right to information. Further, surely there is the possibility of repurposing the existing infrastructure and human capital, used to respond to third party applications for pleadings, to reply to RTI requests. 

Given that the court room is supposed to be a public place, it must follow that pleadings are treated as public documents.

Having an excessively cumbersome and arbitrary process for obtaining pleadings detracts from their public accessibility. The RTI Act was enacted precisely to address issues of transparency such as this one.

Unfortunately however, the courts have consistently been resistant to allowing RTI requests for pleadings. And now with this latest Supreme Court judgment, it appears that the door has firmly been closed, at least for now. In effect, this means that citizens seeking pleadings will for the most part continue to use informal routes, which apparently include bribing registry officials.

It’s unfortunate that the Court has failed to take this opportunity to make itself more transparent and accountable to the public. 

Jai Brunner and Balu Nair work for the Supreme Court Observer, an initiative by the Centre for Law and Policy Research. Views expressed are personal.