RTI See-Saw

DESK BRIEF: On March 4th, a three-judge bench held that citizens could not file RTI requests to obtain copies of pleadings.

On March 4th, a three-judge Supreme Court Bench led by Justice R. Banumathi held that citizens could not file right to information (‘RTI’) requests to obtain copies of pleadings. Pleadings are written submissions of litigants, which contain information such as their claims, arguments and supporting documents. The Court reasoned that the Right to Information Act, 2005 (‘Act’) does not override the rules prescribed by the various High Courts and Supreme Court for obtaining copies of pleadings.

How does this judgment compare to the Court’s celebrated RTI judgment from a few months ago?

As we had covered, on November 13th 2019, the Supreme Court opened itself up to RTI requests, at least on a case-by-case basis. The five-judge Bench reasoned that the Court’s Chief Public Information Officer (CPIO) would have to evaluate individual RTI requests by determining whether disclosure was in the larger public interest. Significantly, the Bench held that the need for judicial independence cannot universally prohibit RTI requests. Most commentators welcomed the judgment as a step towards a more transparent judiciary.

In contrast, this latest judgment restricts the application of the RTI to courts. It held that the Act cannot override existing rules for obtaining pleadings. Justice Banumathi reasoned that such an override would only be justified if there was a conflict between the Act and the existing rules. She dismissed the appellant’s argument that the rules placed a higher burden on citizens for obtaining information than the Act does. Only the rules require citizens to file affidavits providing bona fide reasons for requested information.

Some, such as advocate and scholar T. Prashant Reddy, have criticized the latest judgment for making pleadings less accessible to the public. He points out that the established procedures are more cumbersome than the RTI scheme. On the other hand, as Justice Banumathi emphasises, overriding the existing rules could disproportionately divert the resources of the courts.

There is undoubtedly a need for an efficient and accessible system for obtaining pleadings. After all, they may contain information of great public importance, such as the historical information contained in the Ayodhya pleadings. Moreover, access to pleadings provides an opportunity to hold courts accountable, checking if they addressed the claims and arguments raised by the parties before disposing of a case. The question that remains is whether the current method of accessing pleadings under the rules is as accessible as the RTI scheme?

SC Observer Desk

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