The judgment by the five-judge bench of the Supreme Court that the office of Chief Justice of India (CJI) will come under the 'Right to Information Act' (RTI) is historic. It will help in further democratising Indian judiciary. Although that institution is considered to be the guardians and functionaries of democracy and progressive ideas, it is a fact that India's judiciary is an institution carrying a heavy tradition of feudal values. It is also seen as an institution with least transparency and following a regressive hierarchy. That is why there is a notion that the judiciary alone is outside the purview of the act, even when almost all public authorities come under the jurisdiction of RTI.
It is a long-pending demand that the judiciary and its apex entiry, i.e. CJI's office , be brought under RTI. The current legal battle was triggered by an RTI activist Subhash Chandra Agarwal. It was in 2007 that his petition was submitted seeking the details of assets of supreme court judges. The Public Information Office (PIO) of the apex court replied that such informatin could not be disclosed. Following this, the petitioner approached the Central Information Commissioner, who took a decision favourable to the petitioner holding that seeking the data about judges' assets fell within the ambit of RTI. That was how Delhi High Court filed a case in this regard.
In September 2009 came the judgment from Delhi High Court's single-bench of Justice S Ravindra Bhatt, granting the petition of Agarwal demanding CJI's office being brought under RTI. However, it was a matter of inquisitive debate in legal circles that a single bench of a high court issued a judgment against an earlier position of the Supreme Court. In January 2010, a three-judge bench of Delhi High Court ratified the single bench verdict. But then it was the Supreme Court's registry that in November 2010 approached the Supreme Court against the Delhi High Court's decision. Then after hearing of arguments, in August 2016, the Supreme Court referred the case to a five-judge bench. Wednesday's judgment by the five-judge bench is on this case.
The five judges are unanimous that CJI's office should be subject to RTI, with only some disagreements on the details from Justice DY Chandrachud and Justice Ramana, expressed in their dissent notes. Justice Chandrachud differed from the other judges' view that freedom should be protected and should not be subjected to undue surveillance. According to him, all information should be disclosed. And Justice Ramana's take was that by bringing CJI's office under RTI judges should not be subjected to unnecessary surveillance.
The judgment of Wednesday, is in consonance with the spirit of RTI that all information related to CJI except those related to national security and of highly confidential , should be made available to citizens. The most vital aspect is the role it can play in making judiciary more transparent. For long there have been several criticisms related to appointment of judges. Once the secrecy surrounding those appointments cease to exist, there can even be changes in the pattern of authority and relations in the judiciary. But the judgment specifically states that information regarding privacy of the individual need not be revealed. Therefore, matters that should remain private should not be made public knowledge.
There is no clarity in the judgement on whether the details of assets of judges are private or public information. Hopefully, in due course the court itself will make it clear. What makes the judgment most striking is bringing CJI's office under review of a public authority. True, many of the details in it are to be unravelled and put into effect, as and when they are implemented. It can be expected that this can be developed further in a vibrant democratic society.