Judicial Reforms

Explained: What bringing the CJI’s office under RTI means

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : RTI

Mains level : Read the attached story

Context

  • Recently the Supreme Court has ruled that the office of the CJI is a public authority under the Right to Information (RTI) Act.
  • A five-judge Constitution Bench headed by CJI Gogoi upheld a Delhi High Court ruling of 2010 and dismissed three appeals.

SC plea to SC

  • The Supreme Court in 2010 petitioned itself challenging the Delhi High Court order.
  • The matter was placed before a Division Bench, which decided that it should be heard by a Constitution Bench.
  • The Constitution Bench remained pending across the tenures of CJI K G Balakrishnan, S H Kapadia, Altamas Kabir, P Sathasivam, R M Lodha, H L Dattu, T S Thakur, J S Khehar and Dipak Misra.

What is the new ruling?

  • While ruling that the office of the CJI is a public authority, the Supreme Court held that RTI cannot be used as a tool of surveillance and that judicial independence has to be kept in mind while dealing with transparency.
  • While CJI Gogoi, Justice Gupta and Justice Khanna wrote one judgment, Justices Ramana and Chandrachud wrote separate verdicts.
  • Justice Ramana noted that Right to Privacy is an important aspect and has to be balanced with transparency while deciding to give out information from the office of the Chief Justice of India.
  • Justice Chandrachud wrote in his separate judgment that the judiciary cannot function in total insulation as judges enjoy a constitutional post and discharge public duty.

Balancing is crucial

  • The verdict underlines the balance Supreme Court needs between transparency and protecting its independence.
  • The step is significant because it opens the doors to RTI requests that will test the frontiers of what has been a rather opaque system.
  • What new red lines are drawn will decide how effective the step is.

Where lies Public Authority?

Under Section 2(f) of the RTI Act, information means “any material in any form, including records, documents, memos, e-mails, opinions, advices, press releases, circulars, orders, logbooks, contracts, reports, papers, samples, models, data material held in any electronic form and information relating to any private body which can be accessed by a public authority under any other law for the time being in force”.

Implications of the ruling

  • The outcome is that the office of the CJI will now entertain RTI applications.
  • Whether a public authority discloses the information sought or not, however, is a different matter.
  • Offices such as those of the PM and the President too are public authorities under the RTI Act.
  • But public authorities have often denied information quoting separate observations by the Supreme Court itself in 2011.
  • Officials need to furnish only such information which already exists and is held by the public authority and not collate or create information.
  • It held that the nation does not want a scenario where 75% of the staff of public authorities spends 75% of their time in collecting and furnishing information to applicants instead of discharging their regular duties”.

CBI is still out of RTI

  • While the office of the CJI is now under the RTI’s ambit, the CBI is exempt.
  • The CBI, which is an agency that is often engaged in investigation of corruption cases, is today included in a list of exempted organisations in which most of the others are engaged in intelligence gathering.
  • The Administrative Reforms Commission had earlier recommended exemption of the armed forces from the RTI Act, but had not made such a recommendation for the CBI.
  • While the CBI demanded exemption only for units in intelligence gathering, exemption was granted in 2011 to the agency as a whole.
  • Litigation challenging the decision to exempt the CBI is pending with the Supreme Court; the next date of hearing, however, has not been fixed.
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