Delhi High Court Says, CJI Office Comes Under RTI Act
In a landmark verdict against the Supreme Court, the Delhi High Court on Tuesday held that the office of the Chief Justice of India comes within the ambit of the Right to Information (RTI) law, saying judicial independence is not a judge's privilege but a responsibility cast upon him.
The 88-page judgement is being seen as a personal setback to CJI K G Balakrishnan, who has been opposed to disclosure of information relating to judges under the RTI Act.
A three-judge bench comprising Chief Justice A P Shah and Justices Vikramjeet Sen and S Muralidhar dismissed a plea of the Supreme Court which contended that bringing the CJI's office within the RTI Act would "hamper" judicial independence.
"The judicial independence is not a privilege to a judge but a responsibility," the High Court said, adding that the CJI cannot be said to have fiduciary relationship (between a trustee and a beneficiary) with other judges.
Taking a step further to bring transparency in judiciary, the bench while pronouncing the verdict in a packed courtroom, said its judges will be making their assets public within a week.
CJI has consistently been maintaining that his office does not come within the ambit of the RTI Act and the information including the declaration of assets of its judges cannot be made public under it.
The High Court had in its September 2 verdict on the controversial issue held that the CJI was a public authority and his office came within the purview of the RTI Act.
Challenging the order, the Supreme Court registry had contended that the single judge had erred in holding that the CJI's office comes within the ambit of the transparency law and had interpreted its provisions too broadly which were "unnecessary" and "illogical".
The apex court also contended that judges cannot be put under public scrutiny as it would hamper their functioning and independence.
"We cannot expose our judges to public scrutiny or inquiry because it would hamper their functioning and independence," Attorney General Goolam E Vahanvati, appearing for the apex court registry, had contended.
The AG had argued that other agencies should not be allowed to interfere in the judiciary.
"Judges cannot be judged by public perception. The judiciary cannot be exposed to third party. There is no problem in having better transparency and accountability in the system but it should come from within the system," AG had submitted.
As public opinion mounted on the assets issue, the CJI and other judges of the Supreme Court on November two voluntarily declared their assets by putting the details on the official website.
In its appeal, the Supreme Court maintained that the independence of judiciary is paramount.
In its judgement, the High Court said that the unanimous resolution of SC judges passed in 1997 on declaration of assets cannot be questioned now. The Judges had then decided to put details of their assets in public domain.
It also observed that the judges of the higher judiciary are not less accountable than the judicial magistrates who are legally bound to declare their assets.
During the arguments, the AG had said, "Non-declaration of assets does not mean demeaning and lowering of judicial values. Judges also need protection. They are most vulnerable in the society."
If CJI's office is declared as a public authority under the RTI Act, then people would also seek information over the appointment and promotion of judges, he had said.
The apex court had pleaded that the resolution passed by its judges for declaring their assets is not binding on them as it was part of the self-regulatory mechanism for the judiciary.
"If we accept your (apex court registry) arguments (that resolution is not binding on judges), then it would have serious implication on self-regulation. It is binding and its non-observance has certain consequences," the High Court had observed.
The High Court verdict was hailed as historic by the legal fraternity which hoped that the Supreme Court will not challenge the judgement.
Government on its part said that the verdict by which details of judges assets can be sought invoking the public tool--RTI--should not affect the "independence" of judiciary.
"We must safeguard the independence of judiciary...We do not consider the verdict as an embarassment," Law and Justice Minister Veerappa Moily said.
Moily noted there are still avenues of appeal to the Supreme Court but did not want to comment further.
Prominent lawyer Prashant Bhushan, who has been appearing for the RTI activist Subash C Agarwal behind the campaign for judges to declare their assets, said, "It is a very historic judgement by the High Court which will certainly enhance the stature of judiciary in the country."
He said the judgement also emphatically emphasised that the code of conduct and asset declaration is "fully enforceable" and that every exercise of power by the judiciary and by the Chief Justice whether in its administrative capacity or in judicial capacity is accountable and comes within the purview of the RTI Act.
Agarwal himself said the verdict is a "victory for consumers of justice."
Senior advocate and Congress spokesman A M Singhvi welcomed the verdict and hoped that the administrative side of the apex court would not go in appeal on the judicial side.
"Perhaps one can go to the extent of adding that hopefully, the Supreme Court on its administrative side will decide not to appeal on its judicial side," Singhvi said.
Former CJI V N Khare said fears that the RTI Act could be abused to get details of judges' assets were unfounded.
"In case, somebody abuses this RTI, the Supreme Court is strong enough to take action against them. So there is nothing wrong in your assets being in public domain," he added.
Senior advocate K T S Tulsi said the decision of the Delhi High Court would strengthen the faith of the common man in the judiciary and should be welcomed by one and all.
"I think it is a significant step in the journey towards transparency in the function of every public office. Judiciary itself must welcome it because it is merely an extension
policy evolved by the Supreme Court in public interest," he said.
Tulsi further said that the initial concern and worries would gradually resolve themselves and the media will also learn to use the information with responsibility.
"Overall, I feel that as a result of this judgement, the image of the judiciary will be enhanced in the mind of common man. This will increase transparency in the functioning of the judiciary and exude confidence in the common man," he said. PTI