NEW DELHI: In a landmark verdict, the Delhi high court on Tuesday said the Chief Justice of India is a public authority and his office comes within
the ambit of the RTI Act as the concept of judicial independence is not judge’s personal privilege but responsibility cast on the person.
This is in sharp contrast to Chief Justice of India K G Balakrishnan’s stand that his office was outside the ambit of the transparency law.
However, the high court added that notes, jottings and draft judgments of the CJI’s office would not fall within the umbrella of the transparency law. But “if the judge turns in notes, along with the rest of his files to be maintained as a part of the record, the same may be disclosed,” court said.
The apex court will now have to appeal to itself against the high court order . As soon as the court pronounced its verdict, counsel for the apex court sought the certificate copy of the HC order to file an appeal.
As a natural corollary of the high court verdict, the information pertaining to the assets of the apex court judges, the appointment of judges to the apex court furnished to the office of the CJI will come within the purview of the transparency law. The declaration of the assets by 25 judges of the Supreme Court, including the CJI and one retired judge (Justice B N Agrawal) which has been posted on the web site of the apex court, however , says, such declaration was purely voluntary.
A full bench of the high court headed by Chief Justice A P Shah, Justice Vikramajit Sen and Justice S Muralidhar dismissed the appeal of the apex court which had vehemently opposed bringing CJI’s office within the purview of the act on the ground that it would encroach into its judicial independence .
“Judicial independence is not the personal privilege or prerogative of the individual judge. It is the responsibility imposed on each judge to enable him or her to adjudicate a dispute honestly and impartially on the basis of the law and the evidence,” said the high court in its 88 page judgment.
The high court said, higher the judge is placed in the judicial hierarchy , greater was the standard of accountability and stricter the scrutiny. “If declaration of assets by a subordinate judicial officer is seen as essential to enforce accountability at that level, then the need for such declaration by judges of the constitutional courts is even greater,” it said turning down the plea that Supreme Court judges are not bound to declare their assets.
Giving a wider interpretation to the transparency law, which was hailed as “the most significant event in the life of Indian democracy” , the court said that right to information was part of Fundamental Rights enshrined in Articles 14 (right to equality), 19(1)( a)( freedom of speech) and 21 (right to life) of the Constitution.
“The source of right to information does not emanate from the Right to Information Act. It is a right that emerges from the constitutional guarantees under Article 19(1)( a) as held by the Supreme Court in a catena of decisions . The Right to Information Act is not repository of the right to information ,” the court said.
The court said that the standards of judicial behaviour, both on and off the bench, were normally extremely high. “For a Judge, to deviate from such standards of honesty and impartiality is to betray the trust reposed to him… A judicial scandal has always been regarded as far more deplorable than a scandal involving either the executive or a member of the legislature. The slightest hint of irregularity or impropriety in the court is a cause for great anxiety and alarm,” said the bench in its unanimous judgment.
The high court said that the unanimous resolution of SC judges passed in 1997 on declaration of assets cannot be questioned now. The judges had then decided to put details of their assets in public domain. It also observed that the judges of the higher judiciary were not less accountable than the judicial magistrates legally bound to declare their assets.
The Supreme Court had appealed before the division bench of the high court challenging order passed by a single-judge bench of the high court. Justice S Ravindra Bhatt had said, “CJI is a public authority under the RTI Act and the CJI holds the information pertaining to assets declaration in his capacity as Chief Justice. That office is a public authority under the Act and is covered by its provisions.” Realising the importance of the case, the division bench had referred the case to a full bench.
Advocate Atul Nanda, appearing for the apex court, contended the issue is of national importance and so it has to be decided by the apex court.
The high court order was welcomed by the legal fraternity. The government on its part, however, said, the verdict by which details of judges assets can be sought invoking RTI should not affect the “independence” of judiciary . “We must safeguard the independence of judiciary… We do not consider the verdict as an embarrassment ,” law and justice minister Veerappa Moily said. Moily noted there are still avenues of appeal to the Supreme Court but did not want to comment further.
Advocate Prashant Bhushan, appearing for RTI activist Subash C Agarwal , who is behind the campaign for judges to declare their assets, said, “It is a very historic judgment by the high court which will certainly enhance the stature of judiciary in the country.” Senior advocate and Congress spokesman A M Singhvi welcomed the verdict and hoped that the administrative side of the apex court would not go in appeal on the judicial side.
Former Chief Justice of India J S Verma, who was instrumental in getting the May 7, 1997, resolution passed unanimously pertaining to declaration of assets by the judges publicly opined that the assets of the Supreme Court judges were very much in the public domain.