Right to Information (RTI) is a Fundamental Right guaranteed to the citizens of
India. It was introduced by the Right to Information Act, 2005 which seeks to
mandate disclosure of information by the government bodies. Under this act, any
person can make such requests to public bodies, and the concerned authorities
will have to respond with the information unless legally compelling reasons stop
them from doing so.
RTI has always been seen as a crucial tool for countering
corruption, mismanagement as well as abuses in working of the government
bodies. And, it primarily stems from the Right to Freedom of Speech and
Expression as provided under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution. The
fundamental objective of this act is to empower the citizens, thereby promoting
transparency and accountability in the functioning of public authorities under
the central government as well as the state governments.
Judiciary, as we all are aware, is one of the three organs of the state, the
other two being the Legislature and the Executive. Legislature and Executive
have always been under the ambit of the RTI act but, its relation with Judiciary
has not been the same mainly due to the reason that the independence of
Judiciary has been enshrined in the basic structure doctrine. Therefore, it had
always been feared that subjecting this independent organ of the government to
RTI could take away its freedom.
But, eventually, in 2019, the Supreme Court
held that the Office of the Chief Justice of India comes under the ambit of the RTI. The analysis that we take up in this article is with respect to the
process of inclusion of Judiciary under the Right to Information as we go
through the relevant judgement explaining how the things have changed over the
last decade and led us to the present scenario.
Relevant Provision of the RTI Act, 2005
As already mentioned, the Right to Information Act came in the year 2005. Under
this Act, every public body is to be included in the RTI. And for a particular
body to get an exemption from RTI obligations, it needs to be listed under
Section 24 of the statute. Judiciary, though, does not find its mention under
this section; therefore, it becomes clear that the provisions of the RTI should
But, that has not happened in the last decade for, the
Judiciary has remained reluctant in getting bound by the relevant rules in turn,
getting itself a kind of immunity from the Act. On the other hand, attempts to
make Judiciary more accountable and responsive to the information sought by the
citizens started in 2007 itself.
The Sequence of Events
On November 11, 2007, RTI Activist Mr. Subhash Chandra Agarwal, filed a plea in
the Supreme Court of India requesting information on the assets of judges. But
the same was refused to be revealed by the court. In response, the first appeal
stood filed at the Supreme Court's registry and this request too got denied. Mr. Agarwal, then, approached the Central Information Commission which thereafter,
in 2009, asked the SC to disclose information of judges' assets, for the office
of the Chief Justice of India, came under RTI. The Supreme Court, on receiving
this order, went to the Delhi High Court challenging its validity which led to a
temporary stay of the CIC order.
Arguments given by SC:
The Supreme Court was of the view that asset declaration by the Judges would
come under ‘Personal Information' so that was not liable to be declared under
the RTI Act as there are necessary provisions in the act which exempts one from
disclosing personal information. They further reckoned that Judges could not be
treated the same way as the politicians when it came to asset declaration. Also,
it was argued that bringing Judiciary under RTI and allowing too much of
transparency could eventually take away the independent nature of the Judicial
Verdict of the HC:
On September 2, 2009, single-judge bench of the High Court came up with the
decision that CJI's Office is accountable under the RTI Act and thus, the assets
need to be declared under the law. This verdict got challenged by the Supreme
Court before the division bench of the Delhi HC in response to which a 3-judge
bench was constituted. Thereafter, this special bench observed that the
declaration of assets by the judges to the CJI was binding on them. Finally, on
January 12, 2010, the ruling was delivered stating that the Office of CJI was
under the ambit of the RTI Act.
Onset of the 2019 SC Judgement:
In 2010 itself, after the Delhi HC judgement, Secretary-General of the Supreme
Court along with Central Public Information Officer (CPIO) went on to file
appeals against the Central Information Commission and High Court orders. The
matter, later on, was referred to the Constitutional Bench by the Supreme Court.
And, on November 13, 2019, the Supreme Court's final verdict came upholding the
Delhi HC judgement thereby stating that the Office of the Chief Justice of India
comes under the definition of ‘Public Authority' and hence, it is bound by the
Right to Information Act.
Importance of the Supreme Court Judgement
This landmark judgement given in Central Public Information Officer; Supreme
Court of India v. Subhash Chandra Agarwal  is crucial to understand for it
ended the constant debate that revolved around the inclusion of Judiciary under
the ambit of RTI. The court pronounced that the need to have transparency did
not undermine judicial independence and stated that independence and
accountability go hand in hand in the case of Judiciary.
Additionally, it held
that the decision to go for public disclosure
must be taken on a case by case
basis taking into consideration the competing public interest claims and
weighing them along with the privacy concerns. On the question of whether the
Supreme Court and the Office of the CJI were two separate public authorities
under RTI, the court observed that the Supreme Court of India i.e. a public
authority, in view of Article 124  of the Constitution, necessarily includes
the office of the CJI as well other judges. It was further held that the
offices together constitute the Supreme Court and are therefore, part and parcel
of the Supreme Court (as a body, authority and institution).
With regards to the
fiduciary relationship, the Supreme Court rejected the existence of such a
connection between the judges and the CJI. The appellants, in view of
section 8(e) of the RTI Act (that provides an exemption from disclosure of
information held under fiduciary relationship by a person) had contended that
the information on judges' assets held by the CJI was in a fiduciary
relationship. The Court, while declining such claims, observed that such a
relationship could arise in certain situations only.
In the course of this article, we tried to have an insight into how the Judicial
organ of the ‘state' eventually came under the ambit of the Right to Information
Act, 2005. We went through the concerned judgement and made attempts to cover
all its essential aspects. RTI, as it is evident, performs important functions
in a democracy by enhancing citizen's ability to participate in the process.
When we could question the legislature and the executive for their actions and
have a sort of transparency in their functions by exercising our RTI, then why
should Judiciary be allowed the privilege. The landmark judgement rightly
dissolves such immunity granted to the Judicial organ by answering all the
relevant questions in detail. Now, when all the three organs are finally under
the RTI, we, the citizens can enjoy all the benefits provided to us under the
2005 Act and in turn, experience the democracy in its real sense.
- https://rti.gov.in/ (Website)
- Article 19(1)(a), The Constitution of India, 1950.
- https://thewire.in/law/cji-under-rti-act-supreme-court (Website)
- Section 24, The Right to Information Act, 2005.
- Central Public Information Officer; Supreme Court of India v. Subhash
Chandra Agarwal, 2019 SCC OnLine SC 1459.
- Article 124, The Constitution of India, 1950.
- Section 8(e), The Right to Information Act, 2005.