After 14 years of RTI Act, two landmark judgments by Delhi HC and appeal that waited for 9 years, Supreme Court decides CJI office comes under law
After 14 years of the existence of the Right to Information Act, two landmark judgments by Delhi High Court, both of which held that office of CJI is a 'public authority' and is subject to the RTI Act and an appeal that had to wait for six years to be referred to a constitutional bench and again had to wait for three years, finally got a decision. And the decision is that the office of CJI is subject to RTI Act.
After the Delhi HC judgment in 2010, an appeal was filed in the apex court but it took another six years and it was in August 2016 that three-judge bench headed by Justice Ranjan Gogoi referred it to the constitution bench
Three years later, the Supreme Court of India, in three separate judgments held that office of Chief Justice of India is 'public authority' under the RTI Act and can be brought under its purview
In these nine years, there were serious questions raised against the functioning of Supreme Court. From Collegium's decision's regarding the appointment and transfer of some High Court judges to the allocation of important cases
2 September, 2009: A single-judge bench of Delhi High Court headed by Justice S Ravindra Bhatt held, "The CJI is a public authority under the Right to Information Act and the CJI holds the information pertaining to asset declarations in his capacity as Chief Justice; that office is a "public authority" under the Act and is covered by its provisions".
12 January, 2010: A three-judge bench of Delhi High Court consisting of the then Chief Justice of Inida AP Shah, Justice Vikramajit Sen and Justice S Muralidhar upheld the 2 September judgment of Delhi High Court delivered by Justice S Ravindra Bhatt.
The judgment held, "It was Edmund Burke who observed that "All persons possessing a portion of power ought to be strongly and awfully impressed with an idea that they act in trust and that they are to account for their conduct in that trust." Accountability of the Judiciary cannot be seen in isolation. It must be viewed in the context of a general trend to render governors answerable to the people in ways that are transparent, accessible and effective. Behind this notion is a concept that the wielders of power - legislative, executive and judicial - are entrusted to perform their functions on condition that they account for their stewardship to the people who authorize them to exercise such power. Well defined and publicly known standards and procedures complement, rather than diminish, the notion of judicial independence. Democracy expects openness and openness is concomitant of free society. Sunlight is the best disinfectant. We are satisfied that the impugned order of the learned single Judge is both proper and valid and needs no interference. The appeal is accordingly dismissed".
The judgment which dismissed the appeal of the Supreme Court, which has strongly objected against bringing CJI's office within the purview of the RTI, claiming that it would encroach into its "judicial independence" also held, "Judicial independence is not the personal privilege or prerogative of the individual judge. It is the responsibility imposed on each judge to enable him or her to adjudicate a dispute honestly and impartially on the basis of the law and the evidence".
26 November, 2010: An appeal was made against the Delhi High Court judgment and a two-judge bench of the Supreme Court directed the registry to place the appeals before the Chief Justice of India for constituting a Bench of appropriate strength and framed the following substantial questions of law:
- Whether the concept of independence of judiciary requires and demands the prohibition of furnishing of the information sought? Whether the information sought for amounts to interference in the functioning of the judiciary?
- Whether the information sought for cannot be furnished to avoid any erosion in the credibility of the decisions and to ensure free and frank expression of honest opinion by all the constitutional functionaries, which is essential for effective consultation and for taking the right decision?
- Whether the information sought for is exempt under Section 8(1) (j) of the Right to Information Act??
17 August, 2016: A three-judge Bench referred appeals to a Constitution Bench for adjudication.
13 November, 2019: The constitution bench led by Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi decides that office of CJI is a "public authority" and is subject to the RTI Act.
After 14 years of the existence of the Right to Information Act, two landmark judgments by Delhi High Court, both of which held that office of CJI is a "public authority" and is subject to the RTI Act and an appeal that had to wait for six years to be referred to a constitutional bench and again had to wait for three years, finally got a decision. And the decision is that the office of CJI is subject to RTI Act.
Immediately after the Delhi High Court judgment was delivered in 2010, an appeal was filed in the apex court but it took another six years and it was in August 2016 that three-judge bench headed by Justice Ranjan Gogoi referred it to the constitution bench.
Three years later, finally the Supreme Court of India, in three separate judgments (first, the majority judgment authored by Justice Sanjiv Khanna who shared it with Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi and Justice Deepak Gupta and two concurring opinions that were written by Justices NV Ramana and DY Chandrachud) in essence, held that office of Chief Justice of India is "public authority" under the Right to Information (RTI) Act and can be brought under its purview.
The judgment observes, "The Supreme Court of India, which is a 'public authority', would necessarily include the office of the Chief Justice of India and the judges in view of Article 124 of the Constitution. The office of the Chief Justice or for that matter the judges is not separate from theSupreme Court and is part and parcel of the Supreme Court as a body, authority, and institution. The Chief Justice and the Supreme Court are not two distinct and separate 'public authorities', albeit the latter is a 'public authority' and the Chief Justice and the judges together form and constitute the 'public authority', that is, the Supreme Court of India ... The Chief Justice of India is the head of the institution and neither he nor his office is a separate public authority".
While the two landmark judgment, delivered in a row by the Delhi High Court held that CJI office is "public authority" and is subject to RTI Act, it took another 9 years for the Supreme Court to give its final approval for the same.
While the judgment delivered by the Supreme Court on 13 November is an important one for ensuring accountability of the highest judicial office, a pertinent question that needs to be asked is whether the nine years that it took, can be justified after all.
In these nine years, there were serious questions raised against the functioning of Supreme Court. From Collegium's decision's regarding the appointment and transfer of some High Court judges to the allocation of important cases. These nine years witnessed some unprecedented events in the Supreme Court which eroded the common men's trust in higher judiciary and only a higher amount of accountability could have restored it.
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