While deciding to give out information from the office of the Chief Justice, the Right to Privacy is an important aspect and has to be balanced with transparency, the judges said.
The Supreme Court on Wednesday held that the office of the Chief Justice of India is a public authority and is bound to provide information in public interest under the Right to Information Act, but cautioned that the judicial independence has to be kept in mind while dealing with such transparency.
Upholding the 2010 Delhi High Court decision, a five-judge Constitution bench led by Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi held that “in a constitutional democracy, judges can’t be above the law… the Right to Information and Right to Privacy are two sides of the same coin. None can take precedence over the other.”
Reading out the majority verdict on behalf of the CJI and Justice Deepak Gupta, Justice Sanjiv Khanna said public interest demands that transparency is maintained.
But while deciding to give out information from the office of the Chief Justice, the Right to Privacy is an important aspect and has to be balanced with transparency, the judges said.
“Judicial independence and accountability go hand in hand as accountability ensures, and is a facet of judicial independence… but transparency does not undermine judicial independence,” Justice Khanna, who is also in the line of succession to be the CJI, said while reading the landmark judgment.
Dismissing the appeals filed by Secretary General of the Supreme Court and the Central Public Information officer of the apex court against the HC judgment, the apex court observed that it is not possible to answer the questions in absolute terms. “The public interest test would be applied to weigh the scales and on balance determine whether information should be furnished or would be exempt. Therefore, a universal affirmative or negative answer is not possible. However, independence of judiciary is a matter of public interest,” , Justice Khanna said.
On whether the deliberations of the Supreme Court collegium comprising five senior most judges in the appointment of judges or lawyers should be made public, the top court ruled that it should be decided on a case-to-case basis keeping in mind the larger public interest. The bench said that only the names of judges recommended by the Collegium for appointment can be disclosed, not the reasons.
“Further, while applying the proportionality test, the type and nature of the information is a relevant factor. Distinction must be drawn between the final opinion or resolutions passed by the collegium with regard to appointment/elevation and transfer of judges with observations and indicative reasons and the inputs/data or details which the collegium had examined,” the majority judgement stated.
According to the top court, when the public interest demands the disclosure of information, judicial independence has to be kept in mind while deciding the question of exercise of discretion. However, we should not be understood to mean that the independence of the judiciary can be achieved only by denial of access to information, it said, adding that independence in a given case may well demand openness and transparency by furnishing the information.
Both Justices NV Ramana and DY Chandrachud wrote separate but concurring judgements. While Justice Chandrachud said the judiciary cannot function in total insulation as judges enjoy a constitutional post and discharge a public duty, Justice Ramana ruled that “the transparency cannot be allowed to run to its absolute… right to information should not be allowed to be used as a tool of surveillance to scuttle effective functioning of judiciary.”
“Judicial independence does not mean the insulation of judges from the rule of law. In a constitutional democracy committed to the rule of law and to the equality of its citizens, it cannot be countenanced that judges are above the law,” Justice Chandrachud said.
In a landmark verdict on January 10, 2010, the High Court had held that the office of the chief justice of India comes within the ambit of the RTI law, saying judicial independence was not a judge’s privilege, but a responsibility cast upon him. However, the 88-page judgment was then seen as a personal setback to the then CJI, K G Balakrishnan, who has been opposed to disclosure of information relating to judges under the RTI Act.
The move to bring the office of the Chief Justice under the transparency law was initiated by RTI activist SC Agrawal. His lawyer Prashant Bhushan had petitioned that the Supreme Court accusing the judiciary of what he called an “unfortunate and disturbing” reluctance in supplying information under the RTI Act. “Do judges inhabit different universe,” he had asked then.