A 5 judge Constitution Bench was deciding the extent to which the Supreme Court falls within the ambit of the Right to Information (RTI) Act, 2005. It was hearing a challenge to orders issued by the Central Information Commission (CIC) in 2009, which required the Central Public Information Officer (CPIO) of the Supreme Court to disclose certain sensitive information. Specifically, the CIC directed the Court to divulge:
- Information pertaining to the correspondences & file notings between the Collegium and the central government, in particular with regards to the appointment of Justices HL Dattu, AK Ganguly and RM Lodha.
- Whether Supreme Court and High Court judges had declared their personal assets with the Chief Justice of India.
- A correspondence between the CJI and a Madras High Court judge, after the latter had been approached by a Union Minister, who was attempting to influence the court.
The Court had resisted these orders on the ground that public disclosure may curtail the independence of the judiciary. Further, fiduciary and personal information is exempted from RTI requests under Sections 8(1)(e) and (j) of the RTI Act. The counter-argument however is that public disclosure may also be guaranteed to citizens under the fundamental right to know. And Sections 8(1)(e) and (j) are subject to larger public interest.
Today, the Bench upheld the 2nd CIC order pertaining to the personal assets of Supreme Court and High Court judges. Regarding the 1st and 3rd CIC orders, it held they should be remitted to Court's CPIO for re-examination.
Summary of pronouncement:
- Majority: Justice Khanna on behalf of Chief Justice Gogoi, Justice Deepak Gupta and himself
- Concurring: Justice Ramana
- Concurring: Justice DY Chandrachud
- Chief Justice is a 'public authority' under the RTI Act.
- Transparency does not conflict with judicial independence
- Appeal against the 2nd CIC order dismissed. Delhi High Court judgment upheld, which ordered the CPIO of the Supreme Court to fulfill the CIC order.
- General question of whether personal asset disclosure is subject to RTI requests left open
- Chief Justice is not in a fiduciary relationship with fellow judges and that hence the exemption under Section 8(1)(e) of the RTI does not apply.
- Third-party notice has to be issued before the disclosure of personal information.
- Other CIC orders returned to the CPIO of the Supreme Court for re-examination. CPIO to notify third parties and take into consideration objections, if any, by such parties.
- Establishes a two-step test for assessing whether information is exempt from RTI requests under Section 8(1)(j) of the RTI Act. Section 8(1)(j) exempts personal information, subject to public interest. Any disclosure must meet the demands of the 'reasonable expectation of privacy' and 'freedom of expression.
- CJI is not in a fiduciary relationship with his fellow judges. Further, on the issue of personal information, he says that the CPIO must decide RTI requests in accordance with the doctrine of proportionality.