Information regarding alleged bogus bills submitted by Ms. Hina Shah, Standing Government Counsel - PIO: As dealing hand left the CAT Office of Mumbai without giving the password, Online RTI Applications could not be responded - CIC: Exercise due caution
Information regarding alleged bogus and inflated bills submitted by Ms. Hina P Shah, Standing Counsel of Central Government departments for service matters at Mumbai CAT - PIO: The contractual dealing hand left the CAT Office of Mumbai without giving the password; As a result, Online RTI Applications could not be responded - CIC: Notwithstanding the lack of malafides, the PIO is expected to exercise due caution and pro-activeness in matters dealt with under the RTI Act in the future
The Complainant filed an RTI application on 18.02.2019 seeking information regarding Ms. Hina P Shah, Advocate was Standing Counsel of Central Government departments for service matters at Mumbai CAT. On checking of the some of the fee bills submitted by her it was found that she had submitted bogus as well as highly inflated fee bills. In this connection it is requested to provide the following information under:
“Copy of complete order sheet in OA No. 287/2014, OA No. 286/2014, OA No. 415/2013, OA No. 538/2015, OA No. 420/2016, OA No. 713/2015, OA No. 203/2009, OA No. 243/2017, DA No. 162/2015 and OA No. 685/2016.”
Having not received any response from the CPIO, the Complainant filed a First Appeal dated 18.04.2019. FAA’s order, if any, is not available on record. Feeling aggrieved and dissatisfied with the non-receipt of information, Complainant approached the Commission with the instant complaint.
Relevant Facts emerging during Hearing on 01.04.2021:
The following were present:-
Complainant: Present through audio conference.
Respondent: Amit Kumar, P.S. & CPIO through audio conference.
The Complainant stated that he has not received any reply to his RTI Application till date and prayed for relief to be ordered in the matter.
The CPIO submitted that he has not been able to locate any record suggesting the action taken on the RTI Application by the then CPIO, Margaret Fernandez, presently posted at CAT, Kolkata bench, who has also not responded to his intimations or calls regarding the hearing before the CIC today. He further submitted that he will provide the copies of the order sheets as sought for in the RTI Application to the Complainant.
DECISION on 01.04.2021
The Commission observes from a perusal of the facts on record that no reply was provided to the RTI Application within the stipulated time frame of the RTI Act and further submissions of the CPIO during the hearing suggests a rather disdainful conduct of Margaret Fernandez, then CPIO as she has allegedly not even heeded to the requests of her own coordinate with respect to a statutory matter.
Having observed the gross violation of the provisions of the RTI Act in the matter, the Commission directs Margaret Fernandez, the then CPIO through the present CPIO to appear before the bench on 22.04.2021 via video-conferencing (time and venue of hearing will be intimated separately) to show cause as to why maximum penalty should not be imposed on her under Section 20 of the RTI Act. The then CPIO is also directed to send a copy of all supporting documents upon which she chooses to rely upon during the hearing to the Commission at least two days prior to the hearing via email. If any other persons are responsible for the said omission, CPIO shall serve a copy of this order to such other persons and direct their presence before the bench.
Registry attached with this bench is directed to schedule a video conferencing slot and time for the hearing on the aforesaid date and issue the notice of hearing to Margaret Fernandez, the then CPIO through the present CPIO.
The present CPIO is directed to ensure service of this order to Margaret Fernandez, the then CPIO under due intimation to the Commission.
Further, the instant Complaint is being treated as a Second Appeal based on the relief sought for by the Complainant. The Commission now directs the present CPIO to provide the available and specific information as sought for in the instant RTI application to the Complainant, free of cost. The said direction should be complied with by the CPIO within 15 days from the date of receipt of this order under due intimation to the Commission.
Adverting to the facts of the case, the Commission also directs the CPIO to place a copy of this order before their competent authority to take note of the advisory to ensure that orders/judgments of the CAT, Mumbai are regularly uploaded on their website and is periodically updated so that the citizens do not feel constrained to file RTI Applications to even seek copy of orders and judgments.
The Complaint was disposed of accordingly.
Due to COVID related exigencies, the scheduled hearing of 22.04.2021 could not be conducted. The show-cause hearing was thus notified to the CPIO vide registry’s notice dated 09.01.2023 to be held on 25.01.2023.
Relevant Facts emerging during Hearing:
The following were present:-
Respondent: Margaret Fernandez, Joint Registrar & then CPIO present through video conference.
The then CPIO at the outset extended her unconditional apology and her further explanation is quoted verbatim as –
“the dealing hand who was in-charge of taking out e-mail pertaining to the online RTI Applications of the Central Administrative Tribunal, Mumbai Bench, was deployed on Contract basis. He left the office of Mumbai without any notice on 01.02.2019 and also without giving the password of the mail website. As a result, the office was facing difficulty in taking out the Online RTI Applications. There was no intention on my part to withhold the information to be furnished under the RTI Act by any applicant approaching the Central Administrative Tribunal, Mumbai Bench. The new Assistant Computer official joined the office in the month of August, 2019 by which time, I had been transferred to Kolkata on 02.07.2019. As a result, I could not reply to the RTI Applications sent on website.
As regards my not heeding to the requests of my colleague Shri Amit Kumar, Private Secretary, I most humbly beg to submit that my colleague wanted to know the "password" for opening the RTI website, which I had informed him once that I was not aware of the same. Also, I would like to state that in the year 2019, the Mumbai Bench of Central Administrative Tribunal was facing acute shortage of staff (Quarterly Report of Staff Strength enclosed) so much so, that it became very difficult for each and every staff member to even carry out their daily office duties. I had also been given the charge of Head of the Office as my senior had taken voluntary retirement on 10.01.2019. Also, there was no RTI Cell in CAT, Mumbai as most of them had retired/ taken VRS/transferred in the year 2018-19. Despite all odds, the office of CAT was replying to the RTI applications which were being received in in the office "By Post".
She further urged for a considerate view to be taken in the matter and added that she has prepared a compilation of the complete order sheets as required by the Complainant has been sent to him on 20.01.2023
The Commission has duly considered the submissions of the then CPIO and is of the considered opinion that the lapses evinced in the matter appear to be emanating from administrative deficiencies and lack of coordination amongst the staff. Therefore, for want of any malafides established from the submissions of the CPIO, the Commission is not inclined to proceed with any action under Section 20 of the RTI Act and hereby drops the show-cause proceedings. Here, the Commission relies a judgment of the Hon’ble Delhi High Court in the matter of Registrar of Companies & Ors v. Dharmendra Kumar Garg & Anr. [W.P.(C) 11271/2009] dated 01.06.2012 wherein it was held:
“61. It can happen that the PIO may genuinely and bonafidely entertain the belief and hold the view that the information sought by the querist cannot be provided for one or the other reasons. Merely because the CIC eventually finds that the view taken by the PIO was not correct, it cannot automatically lead to issuance of a showcause notice under Section 20 of the RTI Act and the imposition of penalty. The legislature has cautiously provided that only in cases of malafides or unreasonable conduct, i.e., where the PIO, without reasonable cause refuses to receive the application, or provide the information, or knowingly gives incorrect, incomplete or misleading information or destroys the information, that the personal penalty on the PIO can be imposed....”
Similarly, an observation of the Hon’ble Delhi High Court in the matter of Bhagat Singh vs. CIC & Ors. WP(C) 3114/2007 is also relevant to point out here which reads as under:
“17. This Court takes a serious note of the two-year delay in releasing information, the lack of adequate reasoning in the orders of the Public Information Officer and the Appellate Authority and the lack of application of mind in relation to the nature of information sought. The materials on record clearly show the lackadaisical approach of the second and third respondent in releasing the information sought. However, the Petitioner has not been able to demonstrate that they malafidely denied the information sought. Therefore, a direction to the Central Information Commission to initiate action under Section 20 of the Act, cannot be issued.”
Notwithstanding the lack of malafides, Margaret Fernandez, Joint Registrar & then CPIO is expected to exercise due caution and pro-activeness in matters dealt with under the RTI Act in the future.
Citation: T C Gupta v. Central Administrative Tribunal, CIC/CADMT/C/2019/130141; 01/04/2021