Wednesday, January 07, 2009

A landmark decision from the CIC

The Central Information Commission's decision in Subhash Chandra Agrawal vs. Supreme Court of India, delivered on January 6 is a serious indictment of the Court's stand on the extent to which RTI Act is applicable to it. The Supreme Court, in replies to several RTI applicants (including me once), has taken the stand that the Chief Justice of India and the Supreme Court of India are two distinct Public Authorities and that the Registry of the Court does not hold the information requested. What is significant in this decision is that the CIC referred to the definition of the term 'Public Authority' under section 2(h) of the RTI Act, meaning any authority or body or institution of self Government established or constituted by or under the Constitution. In Para 12, the CIC decision says the Supreme Court is an institution created by the Constitution and is, therefore, a PA. In Para 13, it says, the CJI is a "Competent Authority" under Section 2(e) of the Act. The CIC explicitly rejected the contention that the provisions of RTI Act are not applicable in case of Supreme Court.

Another salient feature of this decision is how the CIC interpreted the word "authority" in the absence of statutory definition or judicial interpretation. It accepted the normal etymological meaning, and suggested that it is a body invested with power to command or to give an ultimate decision, or enforce obedience or having a legal right to command and be obeyed. The institution and its Head cannot be two distinct PAs, the CIC ruled.

Although the decision pertains to the RTI question on the declaration of assets by the Judges of High Court and the Supreme Court, it has set an important precedent to make the Higher Judiciary truly accountable. It will be unfortunate if the Supreme Court appeals against the decision in the High Court, in which case, the Judges hearing the appeal may not be able to decide the appeal objectively in view of the apparent conflict of interests.

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