In early March – before the coronavirus pandemic had upended public life in India – the Supreme Court delivered a worrying judgment on the scope of the RTI Act, in Chief Information Commissioner v. High Court of Gujarat.
Ruling on the Right to Information Act’s applicability to the High Courts of the country, the judgment overturned a fundamental principle of the Act – that no reasons are required to be given for requesting information under the Act.
In the case at hand, the Supreme Court of India was faced with an apparent conflict between two laws –
(i) the RTI Act, 2006, which says that no reasons are required to be given for requesting the information sought under an RTI application; and
(ii) the Gujarat High Court Rules, 1993, which states that when a third party seeks certified copies of the documents of any case proceeding, their application must be supported with an affidavit stating the grounds on which the documents are required.
This Supreme Court’s ruling can be best described as an exercise in flawed legal reasoning. The judgment pulls the proverbial rabbit out of the hat, and holds that there is no inconsistency between the Rules and the Act. The judgment achieves this by noting that the High Court Rules do not forbid the dissemination of information, but rather, they only provide for a different procedure to obtain information. Hence, they cannot be held to be inconsistent with the RTI Act.
The core reasoning of the judgment is based on the oversight of a fundamental principle of legal reasoning: when analysing a legal provision relevant to the issue at hand, the provision must be read in its entirety. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court judgment overlooks significantly relevant segments of the legal provisions in its analysis while relying on other portions thereof. In doing so, the judgment has set a dangerously low bar for what passes muster as the law of the land.
Mis-reading Rule 151
The very scheme of the RTI Act is to create absolute accountability on the government to provide information, subject only to those exceptions that are explicitly mentioned in the Act itself. To this end, the RTI Act explicitly states that wherever the RTI Act is inconsistent with any other law, the provisions of the RTI Act shall have an overriding effect on that law.
In the current context, in a situation where the Rules place an additional burden (above and beyond the RTI Act) on the person seeking information, the Act explicitly overrides these requirements. A plain reading of the law would suggest that the High Court Rules should be overridden to the extent of the inconsistency in requiring supporting reasons with an application.
However, in its analysis, the Supreme Court judgment mischaracterises the relevant Rule – Rule151 – by deploying a selective lens and holds that there is no inconsistency at all. The judgement focuses only on the latter part of the provision, which states that an affidavit must be filed along with the application seeking documents, mentioning the reasons why the documents are being sought. The judgment, therefore, portrays Rule 151 as an enabling provision, made for the dissemination of information, albeit with a different procedure. Regrettably, this is patently incorrect.
The judgment completely overlooks the initial portion of the Rule, which explicitly states that certified copies of documents shall not be given to third parties without the order of a court registrar. Read in its entirety, it is clear that Rule 151 provides that by default, information shall not be provided to third parties, unless the registrar is satisfied with the reasons in the supporting affidavit.
The judgment fails to consider the possibility of any relevance of the first half of Rule 151. By doing so, the judgment makes a basic error in legal reasoning. It mischaracterises Rule 151 and renders its conclusion suspect. It fails to appreciate the fact that while the Rules contemplate the dissemination of information only in limited situations, the very purpose of the Act is to enable the dissemination of information in most situations. When Rule 151 is read in its entirety it is clear that there is indeed an inconsistency between the Act and the Rules.
The ambit of powers under Article 225
The second glaring flaw in the legal reasoning of the Supreme Court judgment lies in the fact that while it notes that the High Court Rules are framed under Article 225 of the Constitution, it fails to note the text of the Article anywhere in the judgment. This is important since Article 225 makes it clear that the rules of the court are subject to the provisions of valid law made by Parliament.
This necessarily means that the scope and ambit of the Gujarat High Court Rules is circumscribed by the provisions of the RTI Act, which is a valid law made by Parliament. Once the RTI Act includes documents from case proceedings in the ambit of ‘information’, and provides that reasons shall not be required to be given for why information is being sought, Article 225 does not allow the rules of the court to require that applications seeking copies of documents must be supported with reasons.
Evidently, then, the RTI Act must override the Rules, even in the terms of the provision that empowers the Rules to be made in the first place.
A step too far
Valid concerns have been raised about the value of this judgment as precedent. It is feared that the judgment will allow other authorities to adopt similar Rules and stifle the RTI Act. While this is an unlikely consequence, the judgment certainly sets a wrong precedent as far as the standard of legal reasoning is concerned. The selective reading of legal provisions, overlooking portions that do not support the conclusion, sets a dangerous precedent.
Unlike the other branches of government, the judiciary is not directly accountable to the people – it can neither be voted out of power, nor be entirely dismissed upon losing the confidence of Parliament. The only accountability for the judiciary lies in the judgments it writes. Judgments are sacrosanct in that regard. In a democracy, where the Constitution is the only holy book, judgments – and the reasons given therein – are the sacred covenant between the people and the judiciary. It is this exercise of reason-giving that continually empowers the judiciary to be the arbiters of justice.
It is, therefore, the duty of a judgment to conform to the highest standards of legal reasoning. The alternative is a scary abyss, where the judiciary stands unaccounted for and eventually becomes unaccountable.
Ever since the press conference of January 2018, the Supreme Court has been faced with the constant charge of its apparent willingness to play fast and loose with self-regulation. The RTI Act judgment is another example of the judiciary failing to meet the standards of propriety, albeit on the judicial side and not on the administrative side. Given the apparent misgivings of the judgment, one hopes that this is perhaps a step too far and will shock the consciousness of the legal fraternity.
In the overwhelming uncertainties of the present-day situation, it is essential that we do not lose sight of issues that will matter once Covid-19 has been overcome. If the third pillar of democracy is to stand firm, the fraternity must come together to require that judgments do the basic minimum by being impervious to attacks on the most basic grounds of legal reasoning.
The author is Research Fellow at Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy. Views are personal.