In ruling that the office of the Supreme Court of India falls under the purview of the Right to Information Act 2005, the Delhi High Court has adopted a bold and legally unexceptionable position that has far-reaching implications for judicial accountability. All those who believe that greater transparency will not only improve the functioning of the judiciary but also strengthen public faith in it will welcome the broad features of the judgment. The verdict was a result of the Supreme Court’s peculiar decision to petition the Delhi High Court against an innocuous Central Information Commission order. In that, the CIC had asked the Supreme Court to disclose to an RTI applicant whether judges were declaring their assets to their respective Chief Justices in accordance with a 1997 court resolution. In his 72-page judgment, Justice Ravindra Bhat strongly controverts the Supreme Court’s contention that the Chief Justice of India holds information about judges’ assets in a “fiduciary” capacity and so this information is exempt from disclosure under the RTI Act. At the same time, he makes a distinction between the information that was sought by the RTI applicant (namely, whether judges were disclosing their assets pursuant to the 1997 resolution) and the actual content of the asset declarations. As far as the latter goes, it is not ordinarily subject to disclosure and may be accessed only under Section 8(1)(j), which applies to cases where the “larger public interest satisfies the disclosure of such information.”
In the recently changed circumstances in which Supreme Court judges and many High Court judges have agreed to publicly disclose assets, the impact of the Delhi High Court’s ruling is likely to be limited. The wider ramification of the judgment lies in its view that the office of the CJI is a public authority under the RTI Act. A section of the judiciary fears that this will open other information — for example, communications relating to appointments and promotions — pertaining to the functioning of the Court to public scrutiny. In most cases, holding back information from the public domain is not really justified and greater transparency will only boost the people’s confidence in the judiciary, while opposing it will only strengthen the impression there is something to hide. As Justice Bhat’s judgment persuasively asks, when the office of the President of India is covered by the RTI Act, is there really a case for keeping the higher judiciary insulated from it? The Supreme Court should accept the Delhi High Court judgment with grace and resist the temptation of appealing against it. If it does otherwise, it will weaken public confidence in the judicial system.