The rules framed by the court deter those who seek information about its workings, reports Avinash Dutt
When the Right to Information (RTI) Act came into force in October 2005, lawyers who had been fighting for transparency in India’s higher judiciary were apprehensive that the courts might not be very forthcoming with information about their working. Many RTI activists also had their doubts about the courts’ willingness to part with information. The RTI rules framed by the Delhi High Court have confirmed their worst fears. They say that the rules completely dilute the provisions of the RTI.
Under the RTI Act, heads of different government institutions are allowed to frame their own rules to implement its provisions. “The High Court rules defeat the entire purpose of the Act,” says the senior Supreme Court lawyer, Prashant Bhushan. RTI campaigner Shekhar Singh agrees. “Rules framed by the court violate the law,” he says.
The Central Information Commissioner, Wajahat Habibullah, who is in-charge of overseeing the Act’s successful implementation, also has reservations about the rules. “I largely agree with Singh’s observation on the RTI rules formulated by the Delhi HC,” he said. Habibullah differs with Singh on some points, but he also feels that the HC rules need to be amended.
Shekhar Singh elaborates why: one of the rules framed by the HC states that if an applicant seeks any information from a Public Information Officer (PIO) that is not under the officer’s jurisdiction, the information will not be provided. Nor will the fees paid by the applicant be refunded. “This is in violation of the act, which stipulates that such applications must be transferred to the correct PIO within five working days,” Singh points out.
The violations, says Singh, don’t stop here. The Delhi HC rules state: “Decisions, which are taken administratively or quasi judicially, information therefore, shall be available only to the affected persons.” The Delhi HC Press Information Officer cited this rule as the reason for the HC’s refusal to divulge information about class III and Class IV recruitments done in the court in the last 16 years (see box). In fact, says Singh, “The act obligates the public authority to suo motu provide all administrative and quasi judicial decisions to the affected party but does not prohibit it from being given to anyone else.”
The RTI campaigners also object to the HC’s stipulation of mandatory forms and the fees that go with it. The Central Information Commission has ruled that RTI forms should be made available to applicants who need them but should not be made mandatory. The HC has pegged the fee at Rs 500 per application. “Though the court is authorised to fix the fee, but the act also says that it should be reasonable. The rate is unreasonably high,” Singh says.
However, Singh does not see the HC rules as all bad. He points out that one rule is actually an improvement over the RTI Act. The Delhi HC rules give the applicant an opportunity to appear in person and present his case before the PIO, something which the Central Information Commission does not mandate.
It would be interesting to see how things unfold between Judiciary-CIC, as a lot will depend upon what the High Court decides; and success of RTI will take a 'U' turn in case the deviation goes into books.
All we can do is hope for the best from judiciary. Hope judiciary will consider that RTI is a common man's tool to reduce his sufferings also it will realize that RTI is reducing burden of judiciary too.