The Delhi High Court on Tuesday held that the office of the Chief Justice of India (CJI) is a ‘public authority’ under the ambit of Right to Information Act and it is bound to provide information about the declaration of asset details by judges of the Supreme Court.

A three-Judge Bench comprising Chief Justice A.P. Shah, Justice Vikramjit Sen and Justice S. Muralidhar upheld the judgment of a single Judge and dismissed an appeal filed by the Secretary-General of the Supreme Court against this judgment. The Bench, however, granted leave to the appellant to file an appeal to the Supreme Court against this judgment since important questions of law required interpretation.

The single judge had on September 2, 2009 dismissed an appeal from the CPIO against an order of the CIC asking the Supreme Court Registry to furnish to RTI activist Subash Chandra Agarwal information in the CJI’s possession on assets of the judges.

“We are satisfied that the impugned order of the single Judge is both proper and valid and needs no interference,” the three-judge Bench said rejecting the submissions of the Attorney General, G.E. Vahanvati who contended “We cannot expose our judges to public scrutiny or inquiry because it would hamper their functioning and independence.”

Writing the 88-page judgment, Justice Shah said “The CJI cannot be a fiduciary vis-à-vis Judges of the Supreme Court. The Judges of the Supreme Court hold independent office, and there is no hierarchy, in their judicial functions, which places them at a different plane than the CJI.’’

“The declarations are not furnished to the CJI in a private relationship or as a trust but in discharge of the constitutional obligation to maintain higher standards and probity of judicial life and are in the larger public interest. In these circumstances, it cannot be held that the asset information shared with the CJI, by the Judges of the Supreme Court, are held by him in the capacity of fiduciary, which if directed to be revealed, would result in breach of such duty,’’ Justice Shah said.

The Bench said “Judges of the superior courts should make public their assets as they are not less accountable than the judicial officers of the lower courts who are bound by service rules to declare assets. Judicial independence is not a judge’s personal privilege but a responsibility cast upon him. A Judge must keep himself absolutely above suspicion, to preserve the impartiality and independence of the judiciary and to have the public confidence thereof.”

The Bench said “the introduction of the stipulation of declaring personal assets is to be seen as an essential ingredient of contemporary accepted behaviour and established convention. Judiciary of undisputed integrity is the bedrock institution essential for ensuring compliance with democracy and the rule of law. Even when all other protections fail, it provides a bulwark to the public against any encroachments of its rights and freedoms under the law.”

“Accountability of the Judiciary cannot be seen in isolation. It must be viewed in the context of a general trend to render governors answerable to the people in ways that are transparent, accessible and effective. Behind this notion is a concept that the wielders of power – legislative, executive and judicial – are entrusted to perform their functions on condition that they account for their stewardship to the people who authorise them to exercise such power. Well defined and publicly known standards and procedures complement, rather than diminish, the notion of judicial independence. Democracy expects openness and openness is concomitant of free society. Sunlight is the best disinfectant,’’ the Bench observed.

The Bench quoted Edmund Burke who said “All persons possessing a portion of power ought to be strongly and awfully impressed with an idea that they act in trust and that they are to account for their conduct in that trust.”

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