Can a Court disallow what an officer can permit under the RTI Act?
The recent Supreme Court of India judgment on Rafale fighter planes in the review petition in case of Manohar Lal Sharma v. Narendra Damodardas Modi has evoked a lot of controversy among the political circles.
I am reproducing some of the paras from the judgment of the Supreme Court wherein certain sections of the RTI Act, 2005 were discussed threadbare. The views of the Apex Court are ‘supreme’ and as such would helpful for all those interested in the RTI Act in any manner.
As these observations of Judge KM Joseph are self explanatory, they are produced as such to give everyone a better understanding of the RTI Ac. Hopefully, everyone who goes through the judgment would find them enlightening.
13. I notice that the claim for privilege may arise in the following situations. The claim for privilege may arise in a system of law where there is no statutory framework provided for such a claim. It has been considered to be the position in the United Kingdom. In India as already noticed, Section 123 of the Evidence Act read with Section 124 and Section 162 does provide for the statutory basis for a claim of public interest privilege. The next aspect relating to the law of compelled production of documents is the constitutional embargo contained in Article 74(2) of the Constitution. Article 74(2) reads as follows:
“74(2) The question whether any, and if so what, advice was tendered by Ministers to the President shall not be inquired into in any court.” Therefore, it would be impermissible for a court to inquire into the advice which is tendered by the cabinet. The objection in this case raised under the Right to Information Act, is based only on Section 8(1)(a). I notice Section 8(1)(i) which provides as follows:-
“8(1)(i) cabinet papers including records of deliberations of the Council of Ministers, Secretaries and other officers; Provided that the decisions of Council of Ministers, the reasons thereof, and the material on the basis of which the decisions were taken shall be made public after the decision has been taken, and the matter is complete, or over:
Provided further that those matters which come under the exemptions specified in this section shall not be disclosed;”.
The said provision having not been pressed into service, neither its scope nor the ramification of Article 74(2) need be pursued further in this case.
18. Sections 22 and 24 bring up the rear. I may highlight their significance in the new dispensation which has been ushered in by Parliament. In no unambiguous terms Parliament has declared that the Official Secrets Act, a law made in the year 1923 and for that matter any other law for the time being in force inter alia notwithstanding the provisions of the RTI Act will hold the field. The first proviso to Section 24 indeed marks a paradigm shift, in the perspective of the body polity through its elected representatives that corruption and human rights violations are completely incompatible and hence anathema to the very basic principles of democracy, the rule of law and constitutional morality. The proviso declares that even though information available with intelligence and security organisations are generally outside the purview of the open disclosure regime contemplated under the Act, if the information pertains to allegations of corruption or human rights violations such information is very much available to be sought for under the Act. The economic development of a country is closely interconnected with the attainment of highest levels of probity in public life. In some of the poorest countries in the world, poverty is rightfully intricately associated with corruption.
In fact, human rights violations are very often the offsprings of corruption. However, the law giver has indeed dealt with corruption and human rights separately. Hence I say no more on this.
19. Reverting back to Section (8) it is clear that Parliament has indeed intended to strengthen democracy and has sought to introduce the highest levels of transparency and openness. With the passing of the Right to Information Act, the citizens fundamental right of expression under Article 19(1) Any person who, does not receive a decision within the time specified in sub¬section (1) or clause (a) of sub-section (3) of section 7, or is aggrieved by a decision of the Central Public Information Officer or State Public Information Officer, as the case may be, may within thirty days from the expiry of such period or from the receipt of such a decision prefer an appeal to such officer who is senior in rank to the Central Public Information Officer or State Public Information Officer as the case may be, in each public authority: Provided that such officer may admit the appeal after the expiry of the period of thirty days if he or she is satisfied that the appellant was prevented by sufficient cause from filing the appeal in time. (a) of the Constitution of India, which itself has been recognised as encompassing, a basket of rights has been given fruitful meaning. Section 8(2) of the Act manifests a legal revolution that has been introduced in that, none of the exemptions declared under sub-section(1) of Section 8 or the Official Secrets Act, 1923 can stand in the way of the access to information if the public interest in disclosure overshadows, the harm to the protected interests.
20. It is true that under Section 8(1)(a), information the disclosure of which will prejudicially affect the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security and strategic security and strategic scientific or economic interests of the State, relation with foreign State or information leading to incitement of an offence are ordinarily exempt from the obligation of disclosure but even in respect of such matters Parliament has advanced the law in a manner which can only be described as dramatic by giving recognition to the principle that disclosure of information could be refused only on the foundation of public interest being jeopardised.
What interestingly Section 8(2) recognises is that there cannot be absolutism even in the matter of certain values which were formerly considered to provide unquestionable foundations for the power to withhold information. Most significantly, Parliament has appreciated that it may be necessary to pit one interest against another and to compare the relative harm and then decide either to disclose or to decline information. It is not as if there would be no harm.
If, for instance, the information falling under clause (a) say for instance the security of the nations or relationship with a foreign state is revealed and is likely to be harmful, under the Act if higher public interest is established, then it is the will of Parliament that the greater good should prevail though at the cost of lesser harm being still occasioned. I indeed would be failing to recognise the radical departure in the law which has been articulated in Section 8(2) if I did not also contrast the law which in fact been laid down by this court in the decisions of this Court which I have adverted to. Under the law relating to privilege there are two classes of documents which ordinarily form the basis of privilege. In the first category, the claim for privilege is raised on the basis of contents of the particular documents. The second head under which privilege is ordinarily claimed is that the document is a document which falls in a class of documents which entitles it to protection from disclosure and production. When a document falls in such a class, ordinarily courts are told that it suffices and the court may not consider the contents. When privilege was claimed as for instance in the matter relating to security of the nation, traditionally, courts both in England and in India have held that such documents would fall in the class of documents which entitles it to protection from production. (See paragraph ‘9’ of this order). The RTI Act through Section 8(2) has conferred upon the citizens a priceless right by clothing them with the right to demand information even in respect of such matters as security of the country and matters relating to relation with foreign state. No doubt, information is not be given for the mere asking. The applicant must establish that withholding of such information produces greater harm than disclosing it.
21. It may be necessary also to consider as to what could be the premise for disclosure in a matter relating to security and relationship with foreign state. The answer is contained in Section 8(2) and that is public interest. Right to justice is immutable. It is inalienable. The demands it has made over other interests has been so overwhelming that it forms the foundation of all civilised nations. The evolution of law itself is founded upon the recognition of right to justice as an indispensable hallmark of a fully evolved nation.
22. The preamble to the constitution proclaims justice -social, economic or political, as the goal to be achieved. It is the duty of every State to provide for a fair and effective system of administration of justice. Judicial review is, in fact, recognised as a basic feature of the Constitution. Section 24 of the Act also highlights the importance attached to the unrelenting crusade against corruption and violation of human rights.
The most important aspect in a justice delivery system is the ability of a party to successfully establish the case based on materials. Subject to exceptions it is settled beyond doubt that any person can set the criminal law into motion. It is equally indisputable however that among the seemingly insuperable obstacles a litigant faces are the limitations on the ability to prove the case with evidence and more importantly relevant evidence.
Ability to secure evidence thus forms the most important aspect in ensuring the triumph of truth and justice. It is imperative therefore that Section 8(2) must be viewed in the said context. Its impact on the operation on the shield of privilege is unmistakable.
23. It is clear that under the Right to Information Act, a citizen can get a certified copy of a document under Section 8(2) of the RTI Act even if the matter pertains to security or relationship with a foreign nation, if a case is made out thereunder. If such a document is produced surely a claim for privilege could not lie.
24. Coming to privilege it may be true that Section 123 of the Evidence Act stands unamended. It is equally true that there is no unqualified right to obtain information in respect of matters under Section 8(1)(a) of the RTI Act. However, the Court cannot be wholly unaffected by the new regime introduced by Parliament under the RTI Act on the question regarding a claim for privilege. It is pertinent to note that an officer of the department is permitted under the RTI Act to allow access to information under the Act in respect of matters falling even under Section 8(1)(a) if a case is made out under Section 8(2). If an officer does not accede to the request, a citizen can pursue remedies before higher authorities and finally the courts.
Could it be said that what an officer under the RTI Act can permit, cannot be allowed by a court and that too superior courts under Section 123 of the Evidence Act. I would think that the court indeed can subject no doubt to one exception, namely, if it is a matter which is tabooed under Article 74(2) of the Constitution.
25. In this case in fact, the documents in respect of which the privilege is claimed are already on record. Section 123 of the Evidence Act in fact contemplates a situation where party seeks the production of document which is with a public authority and the public authority raises claim for privilege by contending that the document cannot be produced by it. Undoubtedly, the foundation for such a claim is based on public interest and nothing more and nothing less. In fact, in State of U.P. VS. Raj Narain AIR 1975 SC 861 I notice the following paragraph about the effect of publication in part in the concurring judgment of K.K. Mathew,J. which reads as under:
“81. I do not think that there is much substance in the contention that since, the Blue Book had been published in parts, it must be deemed to have been published as a whole and, therefore, the document could not be regarded as an unpublished official record relating to affairs of state. If some parts of the document which are innocuous have been published, it does not follow that the whole document has been published. No authority has been cited for the proposition that if a severable and innocuous portion of a document is published, the entire document shall be deemed to have been published for the purpose of S. 123.”
Manohar Lal Sharma v. Narendra Damodardas Modi
Review Petition (Criminal) No. 46 Of 2019
Writ Petition (Criminal) No. 298 Of 2018
Yashwant Sinha & Ors. v. Central Bureau of Investigation Through Its Director & Anr.
M.A.NO. 58/2019 in W.P. (CRL.) 225/2018
R.P. (CRL.) NO. 122/2019 in W.P. (CRL.) 297/2018
M.A. NO. 403/2019 IN W.P. (CRL.) No. 298/2018
R.P.(C) No. 719/2019 in W.P.(C) 1205/2018