After a decade, the Supreme Court has accepted the Delhi High Court ruling that the office of the Chief Justice of India is a ‘public authority’, and hence would be subject to the same rules of transparency and accountability as other individuals and organisations in public life. The step is in tune with the maxim that ‘Caesar’s wife must be above suspicion’. Hence, the assets and acts of the judiciary will be subject to public scrutiny under the Right to Information Act, 2005. Correspondence between the government and the judiciary on important issues such as the appointment of judges by the collegium, or, say, between a political authority and a judge with respect to a certain case may now find its way into the public domain.
As Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi has observed, the disclosures will be circumscribed by the right to privacy. This is well defined under Section 8 (1) (j) of the RTI Act, which says: “...there shall be no obligation to give any citizen information which relates to personal information the disclosure of which has no relationship to any public activity or interest, or which would cause unwarranted invasion of the privacy of the individual unless the Central Public Information officer or the State Public Information Officer or the appellate authority, as the case may be, is satisfied that the larger public interest justifies the disclosure of such information.” The Delhi High Court has observed, as pointed out in a research paper by Tania Khurana on RTI, that information on expenditure of government money in an official capacity cannot be regarded as personal information. There is much that the public can legitimately ask of the workings of the judiciary, such as verdicts delayed after the arguments have been heard.
The belief that disclosure of information on the functioning of the judiciary will undermine its independence lacks basis. Justice is fundamentally based on the equality of all citizens before law, and that includes lawmakers and its guardians. Justice is based on the rule of reason over fear and mystery. A judiciary that has little to conceal will be confident about interpreting the law without fear or favour.
The SC ruling paves the way for political parties to be brought under the RTI Act. The research paper quotes advocate Prashant Bhushan as arguing that that since registered political parties have affirmed their allegiance to the Constitution, Article 19 1 (a) of the Constitution, which upholds right to information, must apply to them. The apex court will now have the moral heft to extend the RTI to political parties, whose finances are a subject of considerable mystery.
But the independence of the office of the Chief Information Commissioner is under threat. The Centre has not done too well on this count, seeking to bring his terms of appointment under Central control. The Home Minister has said that the government is transparent enough to render RTI redundant. The courts should be better placed now to bring the Executive under greater RTI scrutiny.