CPIO, Supreme Court vs. Subash Chandra (Delhi High Court)

DATE: (Date of pronouncement)
DATE: September 3, 2009 (Date of publication)

Click here to download the judgement (judges_assets_declaration_rti.pdf)

Asset declarations by Supreme Court judges is within purview of RTI

Pursuant to a Full Court resolution of the Supreme Court of India made in 1997, the judges make a confidential declaration of their personal assets to the Chief Justice of India (“CJI”). The Applicant asked for information relating to this declaration under the Right to Information Act (“RTI”). When that information was denied, the Applicant appealed to the Central Information Commission which upheld the challenge and directed the PIO of the Supreme Court to provide the information. The Supreme Court filed a writ petition to challenge the said order of the CIC. HELD, upholding the right of the Applicant:

(1) The RTI Act is an important legislation to effectuate democracy. It is a powerful beacon which illuminates unlit corners of state activity, and those of public authorities which impact citizens’ daily lives, to which they previously had no access. It mandates disclosure of all manner of information. No justification for seeking the information is necessary. Parliamentary intention in enacting this law was to arm citizens with the mechanism to scrutinize government and public processes, and ensure transparency subject to limits;

(2) The CJI is a “public authority” and the argument that the asset declarations are held by him in a capacity other than that of CJI is incongruous. Though the CJI performs various functions, all of them are traceable to his position as CJI;

(3) The argument that the declarations were voluntarily filed by the judges, on a “moral” basis, without mandate of law and consequently not “information” u/s 2 (f) cannot be accepted. The declarations were filed pursuant to the 1997 Resolution. The said Resolution reflects the best practices to be followed and form the standards of ethical behaviour of judges. It codifies “core” judicial values which are an inalienable part of what a judge is and how he is expected to behave. It binds the judges and forms a set of conventions of the Constitution. To conclude otherwise would endanger credibility of the institution, which prides by its adherence to the doctrines of precedent, and stare decisis;

(4) The argument that the confidential asset declarations cannot be disclosed as it would entail breach of a fiduciary duty by the CJI is also not acceptable. A fiduciary relationship is one whereby a person places complete confidence in another in regard to his affairs. From this perspective, the CJI is not in a fiduciary vis-à-vis Judges of the Supreme Court. The asset information is not held by the CJI in a fiduciary capacity. The mere fact that the declaration is marked “confidential” is of no relevance;

(5) However, the right to information has to be reconciled with the fundamental right to privacy. S. 8 (1) (j) bars the disclosure of personal information which has no relationship to any public activity or interest, or which would cause unwarranted invasion of the privacy of the individual unless if the PIO is satisfied that disclosure is in public interest. Pursuant to this, the contents of the asset declarations are entitled to be treated as personal information and may be accessed only in accordance with the procedure prescribed u/s 8(1)(j); they are not otherwise subject to disclosure;

Note: The Full Court of the Supreme Court has now resolved to place the information in the Court website, after modalities are duly worked out. Some High Courts, including the Bombay & Delhi High Courts have resolved similarly to make the information public.