Central Public Information Officer, Supreme Court of India v. Subhash Chandra Agarwal: Right to Information and Judicial Independence
The citizen’s Right to Know is one of the significant ingredients of a democratic country. India demands transparent and accountable government to establish open and good governance. The sovereignty of India lies with ‘the people of India’. We choose our own representative therefore; it is our right to know about the machinery of the country. The need to control the mal administration of the government is important. Right to Information Act was formulated in 2005 which comes within the ambit of Article 19(1)(A) of the Constitution of India which ensures the fundamental right to Freedom of Speech and Expression. Many landmark judgments elaborated and clarified the concept of open governance. In the modern era, people are more vigil about their rights and they constitute the democracy. So, they expect the government to deliver. Central Public Information Officer, Supreme Court of India v. Subhash Chandra Agarwal, 2019, it was held by the Constitution Bench of Supreme Court that Supreme Court comes under the scope of “public authority”. Therefore, it is covered under Right to Information Act, 2005 (RTI Act). It is one of the landmark judgments which took a limelight in recent years.
Facts of the Case
In the present case, three appeals were filed in the court of law to clarify the difference between right to information and right to privacy as both the concepts are correlated as well as different. The first appeal was filed by Subhash Chandra Agarwal which demanded the disclosure by the Chief Justice of India, it was alleged that Union Minister had influenced the decision of Madras High Court judge, Justice R. Reghupathi. The second RTI was filed, requesting the information relating to the appointment of Supreme Court judges namely, Justice A.K. Ganguly, Justice H.L. Dutta, Justice R.M. Lodha which superseded other senior Judges. Third appeal was filed seeking the information on a declaration made by judges of the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and the Chief Justices in the States regarding the assets held by them, their spouses or any person dependent on them.
The purpose of the appeals which were filed primarily was to request the access to information and was denied by the court of law. It was held by the full bench of Delhi High Court that the office of Chief Justice of India comes under the definition of “public authority” under RTI Act, 2005 and the disclosure of the assets of Chief Justices of Supreme Court and High Courts were allowed.
After these applications filed, CPIO, Supreme Court of India denied for the requested disclosures. Then after the denial, Subhash Chandra Agarwal filed an appeal to Central Information Commission (CIC), and on 6 January, 2009. CIC ordered the SC to follow the process mentioned under section 6(3) of RTI Act, 2005 and further an order was made to disclose the required information.
The CPIO has filed a writ petition was filed in High Court by CIC but it the case turned up in favour of the respondent.
The five-judge bench of the Supreme Court delivered the judgment through Justice Sanjeev Khanna.
The major issues raised by the Court as follows:
• Whether the demand for transparency the Indian courts interferes with the independence of judiciary?
• Section 8(1)(j) of RTI Act exempts certain disclosures, does the issues in question are also exempted?
• Does the right to freedom of speech and expression interfere with RTI.
The appellants argued the following points:
• The Right to Information is not absolute but is subject to certain exemptions.
• According to section 8(1)(j) of the said act, which exempts the personal information which does not have any role in public activity. Moreover, disclosing the information of candidates appointed for judicial service would be considered as invasion of privacy and is against the public interest.
• The disclosure of information by the judges would be violative of their right to information and also hurdles the functioning of the institution.
• Section 8(1)(j) is very important and more interpretation is required. So it was also argued that the disclosure regarding the appointment of judges is exempted or not. Moreover, the information of assets is only voluntary by the Chief Justice of India in his fiduciary capacity as per pater familias of the judiciary.
The respondent argued the following points:
• The respondent argued that the request to provide information does not interfere with the independence of the judiciary. Transparency and accountability is must for the good governance.
• The disclosure of information is in public interest and it is above the expemptions under the section 8(1)(j) of RTI Act.
• The fiduciary relationship between the Chief Justice and the judges or among the constitutional functionaries is missing.
• The respondent further argued that the “duty of a public servant is not to act for the benefit of another public servant.” As such, the Chief Justice and other functionaries should discharge their constitutional duties and not act as a fiduciary of anyone, except the people.
• The disclosure is mandatory to protect public interest.
The Supreme Court of India and the Chief Justice of Inndia are two different public authorities?
Section 2(h) of RTI Act defines the term “public authority”. A.124 of the Indian Constitution mentions the establishment of Supreme Court of India and it was considered as a public authority under RTI act. Another section 2(2)(ii) of RTI Act says that the Chief Justice and the judges are competent authorities.
Information and right to information
The court interpreted the term ‘information’ as ‘material in any form’ which is accessible by public authority. So, the public authority may access the information by the private body subject to reasonable restrictions, falls under the said category. Also the court further held that Right to Information is not absolute but the restrictions may be applied in such situations where personal information is asked, which is not related to any public interest and would invade the privacy of a person. The competent authority is not bound to disclose such information unless he is satisfied that the larger public interest justifies the disclosure of such information. The sections 8-11 of the said act signify the exemptions and conditions to access the information. The public authority may disclose the information it is important to maintain public interest.
Right to privacy and confidentiality
In the recent judgment of K.S. Puttaswamy case, the citizen’s right to privacy is given a separate important place. So the right to know and right to privacy are inter related rights. The former makes the government answerable to the people of India while the latter one maintains the confidentiality in urgent matters. The conflict of interest arose and the topic gained a lot of attention. The court pointed out the relevance of confidentiality in governmental matters keeping in view, section 11 of the said act. The court concluded that “Confidentiality may have some bearing and importance in ensuring honest and fair appraisals, though it could work the other way around also and therefore, what should be disclosed would depend on reliable enquiry related to the public interest, that is, whether the right to access and the right to know outweighs the possible public interest in protecting privacy or outweighs the harm and injury to third parties when the information relates to such third parties or the information is confidential in nature.”
On 13 November 2019, Supreme Court upheld the decision of Delhi High Court and delivered the judgment in favor of the respondent directing the CPIO, SC to disclosure information about the collegiums decision making personal assets of judges and CJI. Further it was held that such disclosure will be made from case to case basis, there will be no universal rule for all the cases.