The decision of the full bench of the Delhi High Court comprising Chief Justice A.P. Shah, Justice Vikramjit Sen, and Justice S. Muralidhar confirming that every citizen has the right to obtain information provided by the Supreme Court judges and held by the Chief Justice of India is a welcome blow for transparency and accountability in the higher judiciary. This was the third in the series of legal challenges to such disclosure mounted by the Supreme Court — it had earlier contested the issue before the Central Information Commission and a single judge of the Delhi High Court. The case related to the information on the disclosure of assets of judges to the CJI as required under the 1997 resolution passed by all the judges of the Supreme Court. What the RTI applicant sought was not even the contents of the declaration but merely if the judges had furnished the information required under the 1997 resolution. The reluctance to provide even this information was indeed inexplicable, particularly in the context of the court laying so much store by transparency and accountability for public officials and mandating the disclosure of assets of candidates contesting elections, for instance. Before the Delhi High Court bench, the Supreme Court raised the technical contention that the 1997 resolution had only moral force and declaration of assets was not information held under any law to which the RTI Act would apply. It also argued that the CJI held such information in a fiduciary capacity and in confidence and could not be made to disclose it.
The Delhi High Court rejected both these arguments, pointing out that the 1997 resolution passed unanimously by the judges themselves was considered binding. It also held that the CJI was not acting in a fiduciary capacity but was holding the information by reason of his office, and in any case the content of the declarations was not sought. It is significant that the court also sought to place the right to information on a higher constitutional footing of the fundamental right to freedom of expression under Article 19(1)(a) and not just on the RTI Act. The decision marks the close of one chapter that saw the unusual spectacle of the Supreme Court canvassing its case before the High Court and losing — an outcome that should strengthen public perception of the independence of the high court. Stranger still would be the Supreme Court taking up its own case on appeal from the Delhi High Court decision. Bowing to the public opinion, the Supreme Court made public the declaration of assets of all its judges on its website and the issue raised in the case has been addressed substantially. The gains from such transparency would be squandered if the court were now to use its authority to insulate itself from public scrutiny.