New Delhi: In a unanimous decision, a five-judge Constitution bench of the Supreme Court Wednesday ruled that the office of the Chief Justice of India would come under the ambit of the Right to Information (RTI) Act.
In the verdict, the bench headed by CJI Ranjan Gogoi and comprising Justices N.V. Ramana, D.Y. Chandrachud, Deepak Gupta and Sanjiv Khanna, considered the interplay between the right to information and right to privacy.
While Khanna authored the majority opinion, Ramana and Chandrachud authored two separate concurring judgments.
ThePrint brings you four highlights from the judgment.
No fiduciary relationship
The Supreme Court held that there was no fiduciary relationship between the judges and the CJI. This was important as Section 8(e) of the Act exempts disclosure of information available to a person under his fiduciary relationship.
The appellants had contended that the information on judges’ assets declared by them to the chief justice is held in confidence by the chief justice, in his fiduciary capacity.
The majority, however, rejected this argument, but added that this is not an absolute code and that a fiduciary relationship may arise in “certain situations”.
Justice Chandrachud agreed with the absence of a fiduciary relationship, explaining, “The Chief Justice of India merely holds the information in accordance with the official functions and not in any fiduciary capacity…
“There exists no set hierarchies between the judges and they enjoy the same judicial powers and immunities. The judges who disclose their assets cannot be said to be vulnerable to and dependent on the Chief Justice of India.”
Judicial independence as a factor
The majority opinion asserted that “judicial independence” should be one of the factors while considering whether information needed to be disclosed in “public interest”.
With this observation, it drew a distinction between the final collegium resolutions on the one hand, and the reasons and inputs examined by the collegium on the other. The latter, it said, would be disclosed after considering factors such as fiduciary relationship, invasion of right to privacy, and breach of duty of confidentiality owed to the candidate.
In his concurring opinion, Justice Chandrachud called for transparency in the manner in which judges are appointed, asserting that “the collegium is a victim of its own birth – pangs”.
For the application of the RTI Act to the judiciary to have a meaningful impact, the first step needs to be that the basis for the selection and appointment of judges to the higher judiciary is defined and made public, said Chandrachud.
This, he said, should include not just the procedure but “substantive norms” for appointments, such as the basis on which the performance of a Bar member is evaluated for elevating them to the judiciary, their experience, domain specialisation, income requirements, research work, academic qualifications, and pro bono work.
He also pointed out factors which would not be acceptable grounds for denying information — for instance, the position that the information would lead to confusion, embarrassment or unnecessary debate in the public sphere.
‘Not a tool of surveillance’
In his opinion, Justice Ramana asserted that RTI should not be allowed to be used as a “tool of surveillance to scuttle effective functioning of the judiciary”.
He wrote that “transparency cannot be allowed to run to its absolute”, and that “efficiency is equally important principle to be taken into fold”.
The judge also culled out a list of “non-exhaustive” factors to assess whether there was a “reasonable expectation of privacy” by the person whose information is sought. This included nature of information, impact on private life, improper conduct, criminality, absence of consent, effect on him, and the nature and purpose of the intrusion.
This was in the context of Section 8(1)(j) of the Act, which exempts private information, unless the official is satisfied that disclosure was needed to be made in “larger public interest”.
Ramana’s opinion had another list of pointers to be considered while assessing whether any piece of information required to be disclosed in “public interest”, despite exemptions under Section 8 of the Act.
These include nature and content of information, consequences of non-disclosure, dangers and benefits to the public, type of confidential obligation, beliefs of the confidant, reasonable suspicion, party to whom information is disclosed, the manner in which information is acquired, public and private interests, and freedom of expression and proportionality.
‘Motive and purpose’ for making request
Notably, Section 6(2) of the RTI Act specifically exempts the information seeker from giving reasons for requesting the information. However, the motive and purpose for making a request featured at several places in the judgment.
The majority opinion stated that while motive and purpose cannot be a ground to refuse information, it can be a relevant factor in assessing whether the public interest requires disclosure of the information.
Justice Ramana’s list of non-exhaustive factors also included “intrusion’s nature and purpose” to examine whether the information is private and whether the party whose information is sought has a reasonable expectation of privacy.
Why news media is in crisis & How you can fix it
India needs free, fair, non-hyphenated and questioning journalism even more as it faces multiple crises.
But the news media is in a crisis of its own. There have been brutal layoffs and pay-cuts. The best of journalism is shrinking, yielding to crude prime-time spectacle.
ThePrint has the finest young reporters, columnists and editors working for it. Sustaining journalism of this quality needs smart and thinking people like you to pay for it. Whether you live in India or overseas, you can do it here.