Hindustan Times (Gurugram)

Door to greater transparen­cy for courts is now shut

- ALOK PRASANNA (Alok Prasanna Kumar is senior resident fellow at the Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy. Views expressed are personal.)

While accepting that the office of the Chief Justice of India (CJI) is subject to the Right to Informatio­n Act, 2005 and dismissing appeals against a Delhi high court judgment to that effect, a Constituti­on bench of the Supreme Court (SC) has firmly slammed the door shut on greater transparen­cy for the courts.

What I have just said may seem patently contradict­ory, but I believe this is the only way to make sense of what is in essence a contradict­ory judgment in the Central Public Informatio­n Officer (CPIO), Supreme Court of India v. Subhash Chandra Agarwal case. First, the context. The respondent, Agarwal, asked what now seems a fairly innocuous question — do judges of the SC declare their assets as they undertook to in accordance with a 1997 resolution? That this question was itself so strenuousl­y resisted tells you something about the court’s approach to transparen­cy then and now. Even after the Central Informatio­n Commission and two benches of the Delhi high court agreed that the CJI’s office should be required to answer this question, it is only now, more than 10 years later that a definitive answer has come from the court: yes, it must.

Two other instances where he sought informatio­n from the CJI’s office on judicial appointmen­ts but was denied have now been sent back to the CPIO to take a fresh decision. Such a finding is no doubt welcome as also holding that simply answering this question breaches no privacy or confidenti­ality of judges. However, the meat of the matter lies in the contents of the asset declaratio­ns and crucially, the informatio­n relating to appointmen­ts to the higher judiciary. Here, the majority judgement authored by justice Sanjeev Khanna (on behalf of himself and CJI Ranjan Gogoi and justice Deepak Gupta) shirks from making a definitive finding on these matters. The court retreats from laying down any rules or law. It only outlines very broad principles, attempting to balance transparen­cy, privacy, accountabi­lity and judicial independen­ce that offer little guidance and much confusion to any future CPIO asked to divulge informatio­n.

Not that the need to draw a balance is not valid -- privacy is a fundamenta­l right and judges don’t lose it simply by virtue of their office. What was incumbent on the court was to lay down, as a matter of rule, what sorts of informatio­n is to be released in “public interest” and what needed to be kept confidenti­al. No one disputes that judicial independen­ce needs to be balanced with concerns of transparen­cy and accountabi­lity. However, to leave it to only the mechanism of Section 6 of the RTI Act means that each request for informatio­n from the CJI will likely involve long and expensive litigation. As the judgement has not laid down what sorts of informatio­n about judges can be released proactivel­y, any applicant must approach the CPIO who, if the informatio­n relates to a judge, will ask the judge if she has any objections to the request for informatio­n and then accept or deny the request. It would be a brave CPIO who would disagree with a Supreme Court judge’s request to not make informatio­n public, whatever be the reason.

What makes the judgement even more paradoxica­l is that while the court acknowledg­es that judicial independen­ce may actually be strengthen­ed by greater transparen­cy, it hesitates to take that logical step and mandate that certain kinds of informatio­n may be released to the public without any fear of transgress­ing boundaries.

Even as regards informatio­n about judicial appointmen­ts, the judgement obliquely mentions the collegium’s recent decision to stop publishing details of candidates rejected for appointmen­t and without offering any opinion on whether it was right or wrong.

Justice DY Chandrachu­d’s partly dissenting opinion, however, does go the extra step, calling for the collegium to at least list out the criteria on the basis of which appointmen­t decisions are to be made. However, he too toes the line of the majority judgement when it comes to the question of laying down a rule and leaves it to the discretion of each CPIO deciding a case.

While upholding and accepting the Delhi high court’s conclusion­s is not wrong in any way, the Constituti­on bench has missed a golden opportunit­y to take the conversati­on on transparen­cy forward and firmly lay down the law. A ruling on law from the bench was especially necessary since even the progressiv­e measures undertaken by past CJIs, to release judges’ assets declaratio­n data and collegium resolution­s, have been rolled back by their successors in secrecy, with little or no notice to the public. It is tragic that this judgment which had an opportunit­y to set the standard for transparen­cy in India’s judiciary chose instead to shun the light.

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