The Office of the Chief Justice of India (CJI) is a ‘public authority’ under the Right to Information (RTI) Act, a five-judge Constitution Bench led by Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi declared on Wednesday.
The main judgment of the Constitution Bench authored by Justice Sanjiv Khanna said the Supreme Court is a ‘public authority’ and the office of the CJI is part and parcel of the institution. Hence, if the Supreme Court is a public authority, so is the office of the CJI.
Justice Khanna, who shared his judgment with Chief Justice Gogoi and Justice Deepak Gupta, observed that “transparency and accountability should go hand-in-hand”. Increased transparency under RTI was no threat to judicial independence, he held.
Justice D.Y. Chandrachud, in his separate and concurring opinion, eloquently observed that “judicial independence is not secured by the secrecy of cloistered halls”.
Justice N.V. Ramana, in his opinion, struck a more cautionary note, saying judicial independence was the basis of the trust public reposes in the judiciary. Only the right dose of transparency should be calibrated with judicial independence.
‘Not absolute right’
The Bench, however, agreed, in one voice, that the right to know under RTI was not absolute. The right to know of a citizen ought to be balanced with the right to privacy of individual judges.
“Right to information should not be allowed to be used as a tool of surveillance,” Justice Ramana wrote.
Hence, on this aspect, Justice Khanna held that personal information of judges should only be divulged under RTI if such disclosure served the larger public interest.
The disclosure of personal information was discretionary under Section 8(1)(j) of the RTI Act. The statute has given the discretion to the Public Information Officer (PIO).
Justice Chandrachud said the information about assets of judges and official communication during the process of elevation of judges to the Supreme Court are treated as confidential third-party information. In such cases, the PIO should follow the procedure mandated in Section 11 of the RTI Act. That is, a notice should be first issued to the third party — the judge concerned — about the RTI request for information. The view of the third party should be considered before the PIO takes a call.
“Personal information, which if disclosed, could lead to an unwarranted invasion of privacy right… what should be disclosed would depend on authentic enquiry relating to the public interest,” the Supreme Court observed.
Justice Ramana even listed certain “non-exhaustive factors” for the PIO to consider while deciding whether the information sought was private. These factors include various criteria from the nature of the information sought to its impact on the private life of the judge.
The Bench upheld the Delhi High Court judgment of 2010 that the CJI does not hold information on the personal assets of fellow judges in a fiduciary capacity. Information held by a person in a fiduciary capacity is exempt from disclosure under RTI.
Justice Chandrachud observed that the judges of the Supreme Court are constitutional offices and not a hierarchy.
“The judges who disclose their assets cannot be said to be vulnerable to and dependent on the Chief Justice of India,” Justice Chandrachud observed.