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“So far as the third parties are concerned, as of right, they are not entitled to access the information/obtain the certified copies of documents, orders and other proceedings", the Court has said.
The Supreme Court on Wednesday ruled that the Right to Information (RTI) Act would not apply when it comes to third party access to court documents/information on the judicial side (Chief Information Commissioner vs. High Court of Gujarat and anr).
Given the personal nature of such documents, the Bench of Justices R Banumathi, AS Bopanna and Hrishikesh Roy held that judicial information cannot be obtained by third parties as a matter of right.
The Court explained,
“The information is held by the High Court as a trustee for the litigants in order to adjudicate upon the matter and administer justice. The same cannot be permitted by the third party to have access to such personal information of the parties or information given by the Government in the proceedings. Lest, there would be misuse of process of court and the information and it would reach unmanageable levels.”
The Court further pointed out that it is not as if access to such information is completely denied to third parties. There are procedures framed by respective High Courts for the provision of certified copies of such documents. In the case at hand, the rules of the Gujarat High Court assumed focus.
These High Court rules allowed for the grant of such information to third parties, upon application and payment of prescribed fees and upon the applicant showing that s/he has bonafide reasons for wanting to access such information. The Court said,
“It is not as if the information is denied or refused to the applicant. All that is required to be done is to apply for the certified copies with application/affidavit stating the reasons for seeking the information. The reason insisting upon the third party for stating the grounds for obtaining certified copies is to satisfy the court that the information is sought for bona fide reasons or to effectuate public interest.”
While this is the case, the Court further commented,
“In order to maintain the confidentiality of the documents and other information pertaining to the litigants to the proceedings and to maintain proper balance, Rules of the High Court insist upon the third party to file an application/affidavit to obtain information/certified copies of the documents, lest such application would reach unmanageable proportions apart from the misuse of such information.”
From this perspective, the Supreme Court ruled that there was no inconsistency between the provisions of the Gujarat High Court rules on the issue and the RTI Act. Therefore, there was no requirement to invoke overriding effect of the RTI Act under Section 22 either.
The case before the Supreme Court had its genesis in an RTI application filed back in 2010 to access certified copies of court documents pertaining to two cases. The applicant was a third party to both cases.
The dispute cropped up after the applicant was told that he would have to apply for the documents sought for under the Gujarat High Court rules. Successive challenges to the High Court’s refusal to grant these documents under the RTI eventually culminated in the Chief Information Commissioner ruling in the applicant’s favour.
However, a Division Bench of the High Court eventually set aside the Commissioner’s decision, holding that when a particular field is governed by the rules which are not declared ultra-vires, then there is no question of applying the fresh rules and make the situation confusing.
This High Court ruling prompted an appeal before the Supreme Court, which asked Additional Solicitor General Atmaram NS Nadkarni to appear as amicus curiae.
The Supreme Court eventually pointed out that the information possessed by Courts can broadly be divided into two categories, i.e.:
Information held by the High Court relating to the parties to the litigation/proceedings – pleadings, documents and other materials and memo of grounds raised by the parties;
orders and judgments passed by the High Court, notes of proceedings, etc.;
In exercise of power of superintendence over the other courts and tribunals, information received in the records submitted/called for by those courts and tribunals like subordinate judiciary, various tribunals like Income Tax Appellate Tribunal, Customs Excise and Service Tax
information on the administrative side of the High Court viz. appointments, transfers and postings of the judicial officers, staff members of the High Court and the district judiciary, disciplinary action taken against the judicial officers and the staff members and such other information relating to the administrative work.
Correspondence by the High Court with the Supreme Court, Government and with the district judiciary, etc.; and
information on the administrative side as to the decision taken by the collegium of the High Court in making recommendations of the Judges to be appointed to the High Court; information as to the assets of the sitting Judges held by the Chief Justice of the High Court.
The Court proceeded to rule that when it comes to administrative side documents, one can have access to the same under the rules framed by various High Courts or under the RTI Act. Notably, the Bench also pointed out,
“Insofar as the disclosure of information as to the assets of the Judges held by the Chief Justice of the High Court, the same is now covered by the judgment of the Constitution Bench reported in CPIO, Supreme Court of India v. Subhash Chandra Agrawal.”
However, information on the judicial side can only be accessed in terms of the High Court’s Rules, in view of the personal nature of such information. The Bench also remarked,
“The procedure to obtain certified copies under the High Court Rules is not cumbersome and the procedure is very simple – filing of an application/affidavit along with the requisite court fee stating the reasons for seeking the information. The information held by the High Court on the judicial side are the “personal information” of the litigants like title cases and family court matters, etc. Under the guise of seeking information under the RTI Act, the process of the court is not to be abused and information not to be misused.”
High Court rules safeguarding personal information thus would also be in line with Section 8 of the RTI Act, the Bench observed.This provision preserves confidentiality when it comes to certain categories of information. Pertinently, Section 8(j) prohibits disclosure of personal information unless there is an element of public interest involved.
It was also opined that once the High Court has provided for a mechanism to access the information in a particular manner, “the said mechanism should be preserved and followed. The said mechanism cannot be abandoned or discontinued merely because the general law – RTI Act has been enacted.”
This position was also supported by the Delhi High Court judgment in The Registrar Supreme Court of India v. R S Misra and the Karnataka High Court in State Public Information Officer and Deputy Registrar (Establishment) v. Karnataka Information Commission. Concurring with these rulings as well, the Supreme Court has concluded,
Consequently, the Gujarat High Court's judgment on the issue was affirmed. The appeals challenging the same were dismissed.
[Read the Judgment]