The office of the Chief Justice of India (CJI) is covered by the Right to Information (RTI) Act since it is a public authority, the Supreme Court ruled on Wednesday in a landmark judgement as it answered the question “how transparent is transparent enough.”
However, the top court used a rider, saying the information commissioner should apply a test of proportionality while acting on applications seeking information from the office of Chief Justice, bearing in mind the right to privacy and independence of the judiciary.
The majority judgement was delivered by a five-judge Constitution bench, headed by Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi and comprising Justices N.V. Ramana, D.Y. Chandrachud, Deepak Gupta and Sanjiv Khanna.
The apex court observed that given the nature of the information sought, disclosure of the information will serve the larger public interest and, therefore, such interest outweighs the privilege of exemption granted to personal information under RTI Act.
“If any personal information is involved, the same could be dealt with on a case-by-case basis by disclosing the information that serves the public interest as per Section 10 of the RTI Act,” said the apex court. Therefore, the Chief Justice and other functionaries are meant to discharge their constitutional duties and not act as a fiduciary of anyone, except the people.
While delivering the ruling, the apex court dismissed the civil appeal and upheld Delhi High Court’s judgement of January 12, 2010, which had upheld the order passed by the Central Information Commission (CIC) directing the CPIO, Supreme Court, to furnish information on the judges of the Supreme Court who had declared their assets.
“Such disclosure would not, in any way, impinge upon the personal information and right to privacy of the judges,” observed the court.
The court also said that 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.”
On privacy and confidentiality, the court observed it encompasses a bundle of rights, including the right to protect identity and anonymity. “Anonymity is where an individual seeks freedom from identification, even when and despite being in a public space. Privacy and confidentiality, therefore, include information about one’s identity”, said the court.
The apex court has passed three judgments — one a majority judgement, and two separate concurring judgements by Justices N.V. Ramana and D.Y. Chandrachud. “Transparency and accountability go hand-in-hand, and the Chief Justice office comes under the RTI regime,” said the court. Justice Khanna observed, “Transparency only strengthens judicial independence”.
The court observed that when the public interest demands the disclosure of information, judicial independence has to be kept in mind while deciding the question of exercise of discretion. “However, we should not be understood to mean that the independence of the judiciary can be achieved only by denial of access to information,” said the court.