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Delhi HC rules that the CJI's office is within ambit of RTI Act &hence judges' assets can be made public

THE DELHI High Court on Wednesday ruled that the Chief Justice of India ( CJI) is a public authority and his office came within the ambit of the Right to Information ( RTI) Act.

The landmark judgment also stated that disclosure of assets of Supreme Court judges made to the CJI could be made public.

The Supreme Court Registry had approached the high court against a Central Information Commission ( CIC) order directing it to respond to a query by an RTI applicant who sought to know whether Supreme Court judges declared their assets to the CJI in accordance with their resolution in 1997.

Dismissing the petition seeking to protect the office of the CJI, justice S. Ravindra Bhat directed the Supreme Court Registry to release within four weeks the information sought by petitioner S. C. Aggarwal.

The order can be challenged before a division bench of the high court or before the Supreme Court.

The judgment was welcomed by legal experts as bold and reasonable, reflecting the independence of the judiciary.

Lawyer Prashant Bhusan said it's a commendable verdict. " It's a good and bold judgment because CJI K. G. Balakrishnan was repeatedly saying that his office is not a public authority. However, the judgment is left open on personal information," he added.

" I think the judgment is a superb example of judicial independence. The fact that the Supreme Court Registry was, in effect, representing the entire body of judges representing the Supreme Court did not deter the judge from dealing with a highly sensitive and controversial issue is wholly correct," another legal luminary, K. K. Venugopal, said.

Constitutional expert P. P. Rao described the verdict as reasonable and said the stand of the Supreme Court to challenge the CIC order was not appropriate.

Eminent lawyer Ashok Arora said: " At least some judges have taken a stand. It was very strange and unfortunate on the part of the CJI to say that his office does not come under the purview of the RTI Act. The judiciary must be made accountable like any other organisation." Though the high court's direction is not of much relevance in view of the Supreme Court judges recently deciding to make their assets public, the verdict will open doors for people to seek other information from the office of the CJI. The Supreme Court Registry has been resisting the RTI application by Aggarwal since 2007. He had approached the CIC after the apex court's denial to pass the information he had sought.

The Supreme Court opposed the RTI applicant before the CIC, but could not defend its decision not to answer the innocuous question put by him.

The CIC said Aggarwal had not sought details of judges' assets, but wanted to know if they were declaring their property and income.

The registry had contended that the office of the CJI was a separate public authority which was distinct from the Supreme Court and it could not give information that was with the CJI. Rejecting the argument, the CIC directed the registry to answer the query.

Refusing to give up, the registry approached the high court and strongly defended its decision.

Attorney general G. E. Vahanvati, then solicitor general, was entrusted with the task of defending the stand taken by the Supreme Court.

The stiff stand taken by the Supreme Court was opposed by people from various walks of life. The CJI gave in and called a meeting of Supreme Court judges after his stand was opposed by several high court judges.

Even after a decision was taken to declare assets, the CJI maintained that the high court petition was relevant as it was necessary to protect the office of the CJI which had sensitive information.

Justice Bhat rejected the argument that the CJI could not reveal information on assets as it was held by him in a fiduciary capacity. He brushed aside the argument that the information was held by him in his personal and not official capacity.

The court did not agree to the contentions that the 1997 resolution passed by the judges on disclosure of assets to the CJI was not binding on the grounds that it was adopted to set the best ethical standards in the higher judiciary. " It would be highly anomalous to say that judges have no obligation to disclose their personal assets as standards of disclosure for the legislators, parliamentarians and administrators were set by a Supreme Court order. It would be robbing the solemnity of the resolution to say that they were made with the expectation of not being implemented," he said.

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Publication:Mail Today (New Delhi, India)
Date:Sep 3, 2009
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