In a significant judgement, the Supreme Court on Wednesday held that the office of the Chief Justice of India comes under the definition of “public authority” under the Right to Information Act, 2005 (RTI Act), adding that judicial independence cannot be attained by holding back information.
According to the reports, the five-judge bench of the Supreme Court led by Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi upheld a 2010 decision of the Delhi High Court, which had brought the Chief Justice of India under the ambit of the RTI Act. The Supreme Court bench agreed in principle to share information but on a case-to-case basis and subject to RTI safeguards.
Reading out the majority verdict, Justice Sanjiv Khanna said public interest demands that transparency is maintained. “Transparency does not undermine judicial independence,” the judge, who is also in the line of succession to be the CJI, stated.
The order was passed by a five-judge Constitution bench headed by Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi. Other members of the bench are Justices NV Ramana, DY Chandrachud, Deepak Gupta and Sanjiv Khanna. Justice NV Ramana stated there should be a balance between RTI and privacy, and that information-seeking should be calibrated.
Justice DY Chandrachud said the principal consideration should be public interest and that judges are not above the law. He said the Information Officer should weigh competing claims and decide.
Reportedly, the Central Public Information Officer of the Supreme Court had filed a petition against a 2010 Delhi High Court judgement that held the office of the CJI was a public authority and directed the secretary-general of the top court to disclose details of the assets of judges sought by RTI activist SC Agarwal.
In 2010, a three-judge bench of the Delhi high court comprising justices AP Shah, Vikramjit Sen and S Murlidhar had held that the office of the CJI is a “public authority” and hence it comes under the RTI Act. But the ruling was later challenged in the Supreme Court, which had stayed the implementation of the judgment while admitting the appeal.
In 2007, RTI activist Agarwal, under the RTI Act had sought a copy of the resolution dated 7th May 1997 of the full court of the Supreme Court, which requires all judges to make a declaration of assets possessed by them.
In 2016, a three-judge bench headed by Gogoi then had referred the case to a constitution bench to decide whether the office of the CJI comes under the RTI Act or not. The five-judge Constitutional bench had begun to hear the case in April this year.