The CPIO, Supreme Court of India v. Subhash Chandra Agarwal & Anr. – How transparent is transparent enough? 

  • Prince Pathak

The Supreme Court recently upheld the judgement of Delhi High Court. The landmark judgment of the five-judges bench puts the Chief justice of India’s office in the ambit of RTI (Right to information) and also held that, the office of the Chief justice of India is under the public authority[i]. This case came into the light by the Delhi RTI activist Subash Chandra Agrawal, when he filed an appeal before the CPIO (central public information officer) Supreme Court for the compliance with the declaration of the assets by the judges adopted in a Supreme Court resolution in 1997. CPIO rejected the appeal, it was filed again before the CIC (Central Information Commission) and then the matter went to the High court and the Supreme Court. The secretary-general of the Supreme Court petitioned the Supreme Court itself and challenged the Delhi High court decision in 2010. The Supreme Court took almost a decade to deliver this judgment. The judgment makes the CJI office more transparent and accountable to the people in the case of appointment. Nevertheless, the decision does not define the standards for the appointment of judges.

The breakthrough of the Supreme Court for making the judiciary accountable isn’t made for the first time. The Apex Court in 2015 by the three-judge bench, including the erstwhile Chief justice of India Dipak Mishra, Justice A.M Khanwilkar and D.Y Chandrachud gave the judgment regarding the live streaming of court cases which are of constitutional importance[ii]. This judgment was a huge step forward for maintaining the accountability of the Supreme Court to the people.

Further, the argument made by the Appellant (CPIO, Central Public information officer) in the Supreme Court was that the independence of the judiciary is utmost indispensable. The disclosure of sensitive information will cumber the independence of the judiciary; this was acknowledged by the apex court. The Respondent (Subash Chandra Agrawal) upon section 8 (1) (j) of the RTI Act which talks about the exemption from the disclosure of the information[iii], argued that disclosure of information not done unless the more substantial public interest requires that information. The respondent further expounds that the declaration must be based upon case basis if any private information is there. The question looms that whether the Supreme Court (parens patriae) which act as an intervener against the abusive power was itself responsible for this interrogation or judiciary must have to assign this responsibility to the parliament.

Coming to the aspect that concerns the squabble between the right to know and right to privacy. The apex court, in this judgment, explained that right to know is not an absolute right and can be diminuendo in some cases. The judgment held that the right to privacy is an indispensable aspect of everyone’s life and must not use an axe to grind. RTI cannot be used as the tool for surveillance which again bolsters up the independence of the judiciary.[iv]

However, the judgment is very startling in itself, the Chief justice of India appointed under Article 124 of the constitution of India, which brings CJI’s office under the domain of public authority. Because the section 2(h) of the RTI Act implies that, those authorities or bodies which constituted or established under the constitution of India called as a public authority hence, the section of 2(h) of the RTI Act instinctively making the CJI office under the domain of the public authority. Now, the question further can be asked why there was so hue and cry on this. Whether the judiciary was remiss in its duty? The Supreme Court is the highest authority of the judiciary in India. Also, Article 50 of the constitution of India bolsters up the concept of the independence of the judiciary. [v]Although privacy and accountability must go hand-in-hand, transparency cannot triumph over the privacy and vice-versa. The judgment also maintains the dignity and privacy of judges. The bench unanimously held that the RTI is not an absolute right and there should be a proper balance between the right of the judges and transparency. And if any RTI filed seeks to infringe upon the right to privacy of judges that need not be answered. Even the question cannot be put before the judges to disclose the rationale of the judgment because that information is also not on record. The judgment clearly stated what information could be provided to the information seekers and declaring of assets does not constitute the “personal information” of the judges.[vi]

But despite this landmark judgment, the odds for misusing the RTI also escalate. RTI has ushered transparency. This judgment explicitly explained that information which is of immense public interest only needs to answer hence, fabricating the lesser chances of getting misused. Apart from opportunities to get misused this decision gave the classic instance for all other bodies and authorities to declare itself under the public authority, which will help to bring transparency. In the case of DAV College Trust and Managing vs. Director of Public Instructions [vii]apex court again make a good start, held that school and college are substantially financed public authority within the meaning of Section 2(h) of the Act. Transparency must be present within all three branches of government, i.e. legislative, executive and judiciary. RTI, in this, is a stalwart weapon that enriches the accountability and transparency. However, the Supreme Court has done a splendid job by announcing CJI office as part and parcel of public authority but we must spend some time to check the ground reality of RTI in the judiciary and Supreme Court.

The author is a 3rd Year Student from BHU Law School, Varanasi

[i] Central Public Information Officer, Supreme Court of India v. Subhash Chandra Agarwal, 2019 SCC OnLine SC 1459.

[ii] Swapnil Tripathi v. Supreme Court of India, (2018) 10 SCC 639.

[iii] Section 8, The Right to information, 2005.

[iv] Central Public Information Officer, Supreme Court of India v. Subhash Chandra Agarwal, 2019 SCC OnLine SC 1459.

[v] Article 50, The Constitution of India.

[vi] Central Public Information Officer, Supreme Court of India v. Subhash Chandra Agarwal, 2019 SCC OnLine SC 1459.

[vii] 2019 SCC OnLine SC 1210.

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