This post is a part of our 10 Cases the Shaped India in 2019 series.
Between 2009 and 2010, the Supreme Court’s Chief Public Information Officer (CPIO) appealed three orders issued by the Central Information Commission (CIC) under the Right to Information Act, 2005. The orders directed the Supreme Court CPIO to divulge information regarding Collegium decisions, the personal assets of judges, and specific correspondences of the CJI regarding corruption allegations in the Madras High Court. The central issue was whether the Right to Information may curtail the independence of the judiciary.
What was the Supreme Court CPIO appealing?
The CPIO was appealing three orders issued by the CIC, which directed him to divulge information regarding:
What did the Court rule?
The majority opinion offered no general finding on whether Collegium decision-making, personal asset disclosures and the correspondences of the CJI are universally subject to RTI disclosures. However, it held that transparency can be in the interest of judicial independence. It also held that concerns about the ‘free and frank expression’ of Collegium members are alone not sufficient to bar information disclosure. In effect, the judgment allows RTI requests to be decided on a case-by-case basis, under the discretion of the CPIO or the ‘competent authority’ (Chief Justice of Supreme Court) depending on the request.
A more detailed issue-wise breakdown of the judgment:
As with regards to the CIC orders, the judgment held the following:
CIC Order 1: Return to the SC CPIO for re-examination by an order of remit. SC CPIO to reach decision after issuing notice to ‘third parties’ and considering their objections, if any, under Section 11(1) of the RTI Act.
CIC Order 2: CIC order upheld. SC CPIO to furnish information to respondent. Sections 8(1)(e), (j) and 11(1) held not to apply, as ‘details and contents of personal assets’ not sought.
CIC Order 3: Same as ‘CIC Order 1’.
Will the Judgment usher in a new era of judicial transparency and accountability?
While the judgment brings the Office of the Chief Justice firmly under the ambit of the Right to Information (RTI) Act, 2005, it suffers from a lack of clarity that may stand in the way of greater transparency. There is ambiguity over who decides whether information is exempted from disclosure under the RTI Act.
For example, as prominent RTI activist Venkatesh Nayak pointed out in his piece in The Leaflet, the judgment places the discretionary power to disclose information with the Supreme Court, while not clarifying who within the apex court will make such decisions.