NEW DELHI: In a huge step towards transparency, the Supreme Court on Wednesday ruled that office of the Chief Justice of India is a public authority under the ambit of RTI Act, 2005.
The majority verdict penned down by Justice Sanjiv Khanna for himself, CJI Ranjan Gogoi and Deepak Gupta says right to privacy and confidentiality is an important aspect and it has to be balanced while deciding to give out information from the CJI's office.
Justice Chandrachud in a separate judgment but concurring said that the judiciary cannot function in total insulation as judges enjoy the constitutional post and discharge public duty.
Similarly, Justice N V Ramana in a separate ruling said, “transparency cannot be allowed to run counter to the right to privacy.”
The court in a majority view held that there has to be a balance between right to information and right to privacy as well as confidentiality and independence of judiciary, upholding the Delhi High Court verdict bringing CJI's office under RTI Act. However, the apex court asked the information commissioner to apply test of proportionality while entertaining applications seeking information from CJI's office.
The bench also said that details of judges' assets cannot be said to be personal information that cannot be disclosed.
The order came while hearing a plea filed by the Supreme Court Secretary-General against the January 2010 judgment of the Delhi High Court that declared the CJI's office a public authority within the meaning of Section 2(h) of the RTI Act, 2005.
In November 2007, RTI activist Subhash Chandra Aggarwal filed an RTI in the Supreme Court seeking information on judges' assets but the information was denied. Aggarwal then approached the Central Information Commission (CIC) which asked the apex court to disclose information on the ground that the Chief Justice of India's office comes within the ambit of the Act.
In January 2009, the top court had moved the Delhi High Court against the CIC order contending that declaration of assets by its judges to the Chief Justice of India is personal information which cannot be revealed under the RTI Act and too much transparency can affect independence of judiciary.
A single-judge bench of the high court on September 2, 2009, had upheld the CIC order and said the Chief Justice of India's office comes within the ambit of RTI Act and judges' assets be made public under the law.
Meanwhile, in another full-court meeting, the top court passed a resolution that assets of judges be declared voluntarily in public by publishing them in the official website.
The top court thereafter also challenged the single judge's order before a division bench and the high court decided to constitute a special three-judge bench to decide the issue.
The three-judge bench in November 2009 had observed that the resolution passed by the Supreme Court judges in 1997 for declaring their assets to the Chief Justice of India was binding on them and in January 2010 it held that the office of the CJI comes within the ambit of the RTI Act.
The apex court then filed the appeal against the three-judge bench of the high court in the top court which has been pending in the Supreme Court since 2010. The top court decided send the matter to the five-judge Constitution bench.