The landmark judgment which brought the office of CJI under the ambit of RTI was pronounced by a five-judge constitution bench headed by Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi.

"The CJI is within the public authority. The Right to Information and Right to Privacy are two sides of the same coin," the Supreme Court said, upholding the Delhi High Court's ruling. 

main HIGHLIGHTS

  • The SC has held that the office of CJI is a public authority under the transparency law, Right to Information Act, 2005.
  • SC cautioned that RTI cannot be used as a tool of surveillance.
  • Judicial independence has to be kept in mind while dealing with transparency, held SC.
"The Right to Information and Right to Privacy are two sides of the same coin. None can take precedence over the other," the court said in a judgement that said the Chief Justice's office comes under the transparency law.

The Supreme Court in case of CPIO v Subhash Chandra Agarwal has held that office of the Chief Justice of India is a public authority under the transparency law, the Right to Information Act.
"Transparency doesn’t undermine judicial independence," the Supreme Court said in a unanimous verdict as it upheld the Delhi High Court judgment which ruled that office of the Chief Justice comes under the purview of RTI.
The five-judge the constitution bench, headed by Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi, heard three civil appeals challenging the Delhi high court judgment, filed by Secretary-General of the Supreme Court and the Central Public Information officer of the apex court. The case covers issues such as disclosure of assets by judges and transparency in the functioning of the collegium.
Bench dismissed the three appeals filed by the secretary-general of the Supreme court and the Central Public Information officer of the apex court. Other members of the bench included Justices NV Ramana, DY Chandrachud, Deepak Gupta and Sanjiv Khanna.
The majority of judges held that the CJI’s office should be brought under the purview of said Act. While public interest demands accountability, judicial independence is foremost, it was stated by Justice Sanjiv Khanna.
However, bringing the CJI’s office under the RTI would not weaken the independence of the judiciary said Justice D.Y. Chandrachud, who read out a separate opinion on the case.
Justice Chandrachud added that “Neither is RTI under Article 19 nor is the right to privacy absolute” and said that all Judges and CJI hold the “constitutional positions”.
A separate opinion was also stated by Justice Ramana, who said that the “RTI should not be allowed to be used as a tool of surveillance”.
While the Chief Justice and Justices Gupta and Khanna wrote one judgement, Justices Ramana and Chandrachud have written separate verdicts.
The Supreme Court, however, said that confidentiality and right to privacy have to be maintained and added that RTI can’t be used as a tool of surveillance.
The bench said that only names of judges recommended by the collegium can be disclosed, not the reasons.
A five-judge constitution bench had on April 4 reserved its verdict on the appeals filed in 2010 by the Supreme Court secretary-general and its central public information officer against the high court and the central information commission's (CIC's) orders.
 The Bench headed by chief justice winded up the hearing by that saying nobody wants a "system of opaqueness", but the judiciary cannot be destroyed in the name of transparency.
"Nobody wants to remain in the state of darkness or keep anybody in the state of darkness," it had said. "The question is drawing a line. In the name of transparency, you can't destroy the institution."

Download and Read Judgement here [pdf]

The Delhi High Court order

In a landmark verdict on January 10, 2010, the Delhi High Court had held that the office of the Chief Justice of India comes within the ambit of the Right to Information (RTI) law, stating that judicial independence was not a judge's privilege, but a responsibility cast upon him.
The 88-page judgment was then seen as a personal setback to the then CJI, KG Balakrishnan, who has been opposed to disclosure of information relating to judges under the RTI Act.

The SC highlights

The step of bringing office of the CJI under the transparency law was initiated by RTI activist SC Agrawal. It  was submitted by Prashant Bhushan (his lawyer) in the Top Court  that though SC  should not have been judging in his own cause, the appeals are being heard due to "doctrine of necessity".
The Judiciary is not willing to impart information under the RTI Act and it had been described by lawyers about Judiciary as “unfortunate” and “disturbing” asking: "Do judges inhabit different universe?"
He had submitted that the apex court has always act transparently in the functioning of other organs of state, but stands silent when its own issue requires the attention.
Referring to the provisions of RTI, Bhushan had said they also deal with exemptions and information that cannot be given to applicants, but the public interest should always "outweigh" personal interests if the person concerned is holding or about to hold a public office.
Dealing with "judicial independence", he said the National Judicial Accountability Commission Act was struck down for protecting the judiciary against interference from the executive, but this did not mean that judiciary is free from "public scrutiny".
"This is not the independence from accountability. Independence of judiciary means it has to be independent from the executive and not independent from the common public. People are entitled to know as to what public authorities are doing," Bhushan had said.
The deliberations of the collegium in appointing and overlooking judges or lawyers should be made public and information can be parted with under RTI on case-to-case basis keeping in mind the larger public interest, the lawyer had said.
The bench had said people, of late, were opting out and do not want to become judges because of the fear of negative publicity.
"On interaction, the reason appears to be the possibility of the negative observations, whether rightly or wrongly, being brought into the public domain," it had observed. In such a case, besides losing judgeship and reputation, the professional and family life of the person are adversely affected, it had said.
The apex court had said it had brought about changes in the functioning of the collegium system and said now members have started interacting with the prospective candidate.

‘Judiciary should be independent from the executive, not common public’

Shruti Singh Chauhan is a student of BALLB at PSIT, Kanpur. She can be reached at [email protected] alert-info