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  • Vijayant Goel

Scope of RTI Act 2005 in obtaining Court Pleadings

Updated: Mar 25

Maria Abraham & Geethika Sunil, Students, Christ(Deemed to be University), Bangalore

Introduction

The Right to Information Act, 2005 ( RTI), is undoubtedly one of India's most potent legislation. The objective of the Act is to set out the practical regime of right to information for citizens to secure access to information under the control of public authorities, in order to promote transparency and accountability in the working of every public authority [1]. It is a fundamental right that the state must enforce and guarantee. Under this Act, various Public authorities have to maintain all their records within a reasonable time and is made available. If there is an open government where there is full access to information regarding government functioning, only the participants of democracy, i.e. people, can play an essential role in democracy[2]. The independence of the judiciary has always been a matter of discussion. On 13th November 2019, in the case of Central Public Information Officer, Supreme Court of India v. Subhash Chandra Agarwal[3], the Supreme Court held that “the need for judicial independence does not stand in contradiction with that for transparency”. The Judgement also held that the Supreme Court comes under the definition of ‘public authority’ in the RTI 2005 on a case-to-case basis.


Four months later this Judgement on 4th March, a three-judge Supreme Court Bench led by Justice R. Banumathi held that citizens could not file RTI requests to obtain copies of court pleadings and other documents in the case of Chief Information Commissioner v. High Court of Gujarat and Ors[4]. Pleadings are the written statement containing, the material facts on which the party pleading relies for his claim or defence[5]. It includes the claims and counterclaims of the party but not the pieces of evidence. This Judgement has nearly overturned the basic idea behind the Act that:

“no reasons are required to be given for requesting information under the Act”.

The Conflict in Law

While deciding upon the case, the Supreme court faced a conflict between Section 6 (2) and Gujarat High Court Rules, 1993 [6] framed under Article 225 of the Constitution of India. Section 6(2) of the RTI states that “an applicant requesting information shall not be required to give any reason for requesting the information or any other personal details except those that may be necessary for contacting him.”Rule 151 of the Gujarat High Court Rules provides copies of documents in any proceeding and copies of judgment of the High Court shall not be given to persons other than the parties. Any other applications made by third parties shall be accompanied by an affidavit stating the grounds on which they are required under the order of an officer of the Court. Many other High Courts also have similar provisions for providing information copies to third parties. This creates a conflict in law and direct inconsistency between the two provisions, and hence it was not easy to have a harmonious construction between them. The case relied upon the Central Public Information Officer, Supreme Court of India v. Subhash Chandra Agarwal [7]. Privacy or the rights of other parties or the administration of justice cannot be affected by allowing a person to seek information from the High Court under the RTI Act. Also, the High Court Rules does not stop the third party from obtaining the copies of documents and does not deny providing information as it merely lays down a different procedure or payment of a fee. It only requires to apply with an affidavit, and this was the reasoning provided by the Court in Judgement. The reason has to be stated to satisfy the Court that information sought is bona fide or a matter of public interest. The very reason for the RTI Act is to promote transparency of information, which can also be fulfilled by Rule 151. Also, there is no specification as to repealing any laws that deal with procurement of information in the act.


Another conflict that existed was that Section 22 of the RTI provides explicitly that “provisions of the RTI Act will have an overriding effect over any other laws. Hence, the RTI will prevail over the Hight Courts Rules as decided in the Institute of Companies Secretaries of India v. Paras Jain [8]. However, it was found that inconsistency does not exist here because both legislations aim to ensure access to information, and the overriding effect of RTI would not apply. Moreover, Article 225 clarifies that the rules of the Court are subject to the provisions of law made by Parliament, which RTI is.


Furthermore, this conflict also exists in the case of Supreme Court Rules framed under Article 145 of the Constitution. When these two mechanisms exist for obtaining information, it was held that:

"once any information can be accessed through the mechanism provided under another statute, then the provisions of the RTI Act cannot resort to [9]."

Importance of transparency

Judiciary is the most essential organ of the Government and remains distinct from other Government branches. It is not directly accountable to the people other than its judgments. This makes them the abode of justice. Hence it becomes necessary to maintain high standards based on the most suitable legal reasoning. Citizens have the right in order to make sure that such proceedings are held appropriately. Access to such information will help ensure that there is no misuse of the process of the Court. It can be used to held courts accountable and checking that the arguments and issues have been addressed. This will bring down corruption and abuse of administration. Having information regarding court records can be useful in criminal cases, PILs, and commercial lawsuits in understanding the problem and finding out the loopholes, if there are any. This information can be made available to a variety of participants like citizens, academicians, journalists, the legal fraternity, etc who can better inform the public discourse on these decisions' ramifications [10].


Conclusion

This judgment has made court pleadings, records, and other related documents less accessible to the public. However, there is indisputably a need for an efficient and transparent system. These documents have information that can be very important for protecting the interests of citizens. It is surprising that a five-judge bench had said: “transparency does not undermine judicial independence” unanimously in the November judgment. The present Judgement shows us the fault that occurred in legal reasoning and its failure in considering rule 151 and Article 225 in their entirety. The Court found that filing such an application through RTI “would involve wastage of both time and financial resources which the preamble of the RTI Act itself intends to avoid.” However, the procedure in filing an RTI is simple enough considering the arbitrary and cumbersome procedure under the High Court Rules. This can also mean Citizens applying to continue with many informal means such as bribery to obtain information.


Many concerns have been raised regarding this Judgement, saying it sets a wrong and dangerous precedent. Now when many institutions are trying to be transparent, the judiciary should practise what it preaches. While allowing the judiciary to be controlled and regulated by the executive or the legislature might be fraught with danger, it is also dangerous to allow the judiciary to function without any semblance of accountability and public scrutiny [11]. It is high time to rethink whether this is a step taken too far?

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[1] Right to Information Act, 2005 available at Gujarat High Court Rules, 1993 available at https://gujarathighcourt.nic.in/hccms/sites/default/files/rules_files/GUJ.__H.C._RULES,1993_amended_on_16.09.2019_91.pdf, last seen on 29/10/2020

[2] V.R. Krishna Iyer, Freedom of Information 86 (Eastern Book Company, 1990)

[3] Central Public Information Officer, Supreme Court of India v. Subhash Chandra Agarwal (2019) SCC OnLine SC 1459

[4] Chief Information Commissioner v. High Court of Gujarat and Ors (2020) 4 SCC 702

[5] S.58, Indian evidence act (1 of 1872)

[6] Gujarat High Court Rules, 1993 available at Gujarat High Court Rules, 1993 available at https://gujarathighcourt.nic.in/hccms/sites/default/files/rules_files/GUJ.__H.C._RULES,1993_amended_on_16.09.2019_91.pdf, last seen on 29/10/2020

[7] Supra 3

[8] Institute of Companies Secretaries of India v. Paras Jain, MANU/SC/0783/2019

[9] The Registrar Supreme Court of India v. R S Misra, (2017) 244 DLT 179,

[10] Prashant Reddy T, Ruling against judicial transparency, The Hindu (12/03/2020) available at https://openscholarship.wustl.edu/law_globalstudies/vol13/iss2/7 last seen on 31/10/2020

[11] Supriya Routh, Independence Sans Accountability: A Case for Right to Information Against the Indian Judiciary, 13 (Wash. U. Global Stud. Rev. 321 2014), available at https://openscholarship.wustl.edu/law_globalstudies/vol13/iss2/7 last seen on 31/10/2020