In a pathbreaking verdict on Wednesday, the Supreme Court ruled that the office of the Chief Justice of India (CJI) is a public authority under the Right to Information Act. It, however, added that judicial independence has to be kept in mind while disclosing information in public interest. The 5-judge Constitution bench headed by Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi dismissed the appeal filed by the Central Public Information Officer and the Secretary General of the apex court against the Delhi High Court's 2010 judgment.
CJI Office under RTI: Explaining Supreme Court's verdict
- Writing the judgement on behalf of the CJI, Justice Deepak Gupta and himself, Justice Sanjiv Khanna referred to several decisions and viewpoints to highlight the contentious nature of the issue of "transparency, accountability and judicial independence", and said it was necessary that "the question of judicial independence is accounted for in the balancing exercise".
- Referring to Constitutional scheme on setting up of the apex court, the verdict said: "It is undebatable that the Supreme Court of India is a 'public authority', as defined vide clause (h) to Section 2 of the RTI Act as it has been established and constituted by or under the Constitution.
- "The CJI is the competent authority in the case of the Supreme Court. Consequently, in terms of Section 28 of the RTI Act, the CJI is empowered to frame rules, which have to be notified..., to carry out provisions of the RTI Act."
- The top court would necessarily include the office of CJI, it said, adding, "the office of CJI or for that matter the judges is not separate from the SC, and is part and parcel of the SC as a body, authority and institution".
- The bench said it was necessary that question of "judicial independence is accounted for in the balancing exercise" with RTI.
- It cannot be doubted and debated that independence of the judiciary is a matter of "ennobled public concern" and directly relates to public welfare and would be one of the factors to be taken into account in weighing and applying the public interest test, said the judgement, running into 108 pages.
- "Thus, when public interest demands disclosure of information, judicial independence has to be kept in mind while deciding the question of exercise of discretion," Justice Khanna said.
- It, however, said the verdict "should not be understood to mean that the independence of the judiciary can be achieved only by denial of access to information".
- The verdict, which has been concurred by Justices N V Ramana and D Y Chandrachud in separate verdicts, said that in some cases judicial independence may "demand openness and transparency by furnishing the information" and in some cases disclosure may not be needed.
- Reference to the principle of judicial independence is not to undermine and avoid accountability which is an aspect "we perceive and believe" has to be taken into account while examining the public interest in favour of disclosure of information, it said.
- "Distinction must be drawn between the final opinion or resolutions passed by collegium with regard to appointment /elevation and transfer of judges with observations and indicative reasons and the inputs/data or details which the collegium had examined," the bench said while stressing on balancing between the right to information, judicial independence and confidentiality of personal information.
- The rigour of public interest in divulging inputs, data and particulars of a candidate (probable judge) would be different from that of divulging and furnishing details of the output that is the decision, it said.
- "The public interest test would have to be applied keeping in mind the fiduciary relationship,(if it arises), and also the invasion of the right to privacy and breach of the duty of confidentiality owed to the candidate or the information provider, resulting from the furnishing of such details and particulars," it said on the collegium deliberations.
- Judicial independence and accountability "go hand in hand as accountability ensures, and is a facet of judicial independence. Further, while applying the proportionality test, the type and nature of the information is a relevant factor," it said.
- It said the transparency and openness in judicial appointments "juxtaposed" with confidentiality of deliberations remain one of the most delicate and complex areas.
- With the passage of time, there has been a change as concerns have been expressed on disclosure of the names and the reasons for those who had not been approved by the collegium, it added.
- Deciding three appeals, the judgement said it was not possible to answer these questions in absolute terms, and "in each case, the public interest test would be applied to weigh the scales and on balance determine whether information should be furnished or would be exempt."
- Consequently, the top court dismissed first appeal filed by CPIO against the HC verdict asking it to furnish information on SC judges who had declared their assets.
- It, however, partly allowed the other two appeals of the CPIO of the apex court in which it was directed to disclose complete correspondence with the then CJI as a news report alleged that a Union Minister had approached a HC Judge to influence his judicial decisions.
- The second appeal pertained to seeking file notings on appointment of three judges in SC while superseding some senior HC judges.cThe verdict referred these two cases to the CPIO to re-examine them after following procedure under the RTI Act.
(With PTI inputs)