New Delhi: In a landmark verdict that has the potential to make the higher judiciary more accountable and transparent in its functioning, the Delhi high court on Tuesday ruled that the office of the Chief Justice of India (CJI) comes within the ambit of the Right to Information (RTI) law.
The ruling opens up the interesting possibility of the Supreme Court going in appeal to itself. Lawyer Atul Nanda, appearing for the apex court, sought and secured the high court’s leave to challenge the verdict in the Supreme Court.
The ruling would also mean more openness in the judicial process of appointing judges to higher courts.
The present process of appointment of judges by a collegium of senior judges has been criticized for being non-transparent and arbitrary, highlighted by the controversy over the proposed elevation of justice P.D. Dinakaran of the Karnataka high court to the apex court. The promotion has been stalled by allegations of corruption and land grabbing against Dinakaran.
A three-judge Delhi high court bench headed by chief justice A.P. Shah gave the verdict while dismissing an appeal by the Supreme Court, which argued that bringing the CJI’s office within the purview of the RTI Act would “hamper” judicial independence.
The high court held that judicial independence was not a judge’s privilege, but a responsibility cast upon him or her. The higher the judiciary, the higher its accountability towards the public at large, it said.
“RTI has over-reaching impact,” the high court bench said. “Citizens who require such information should not misuse the information, thus saving the independence of (the) judiciary.”
CJI K.G. Balakrishnan has consistently maintained that his office does not come within the ambit of the RTI Act and that information, including the assets of Supreme Court judges, cannot be made public under it.
The Supreme Court had appealed to the three-judge bench against a 2 September verdict by justice S. Ravindra Bhat, who held that the CJI was a public authority and that his office came within the purview of the RTI Act.
Taking a step further to bringing transparency in the judiciary, the bench also announced that Delhi high court judges will make their assets public within a week.
The legal fraternity hailed the verdict as a historic ruling.
“Transparency in judiciary is essential for democracy,” said former CJI J.S. Verma.
Supreme Court advocate Prashant Bhushan, the lawyer for RTI activist Subash C. Agarwal who is spearheading a 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 emphasized that a judicial code of conduct and asset declaration were “fully enforceable” and that every exercise of power by the judiciary and by CJI—whether in an administrative capacity or judicial capacity—was accountable and came within the purview of the RTI Act.
Two resolutions adopted by judges in 1997 and 1999 had said that declaration of assets was not binding on judges, but could be done voluntarily.
Senior advocate and Congress party spokesman Abhishek M. Singhvi welcomed the verdict. “Personally, I think that the decision of the Delhi high court on facts, law, equity and good sense is exceptionable,” he said.
There has been at least one instance of the Supreme Court hearing a matter involving itself and RTI.
On 5 December, the apex court blocked an order by the chief information commissioner asking the Supreme Court registry to provide RTI activist Agrawal information and documents relating to the correspondence between a former law minister and other constitutional authorities, together with their file notings, on the appointment of Supreme Court judges H.L. Dattu, A.K. Ganguly and R.M. Lodha.