In November 2007, the applicant requested the Central Public Information Officer of the Supreme Court of India (the CPIO) to provide (i) a copy of the 1997 Full Court Resolution which required every judge to declare his/her assets to the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court (CJI); and (ii) information relating to the declaration of the Chief Justices’ assets. While the first part of the applicant’s request was satisfied, access to information regarding asset declarations was denied on the grounds that it “was not held by or under the control of the Registry of the Supreme Court” (para. 2).
The Court found that the Chief Justice’s office is a “public authority” within the meaning of the Right to Information Act (the Act) as it performs numerous administrative functions in addition to its adjudicatory role. Access to information it held was therefore regulated by the Act. The Court emphasized that information pertaining to submitted declarations and their contents constitutes “information” within the meaning of Section 2 (f) of the Act (para. 53).
The CPIO argued that assuming that asset declarations constituted “information” under the Act, disclosure would breach a fiduciary duty owned to the judges. The rule of confidentiality of asset declarations was also found in the 1997 Resolution (para. 54). The Court dismissed this argument pointing out that the CJI could not be a fiduciary vis-à-vis Judges of the Supreme Court asjudges held independent office and their affairs or conduct was not controlled by the CJI. As to the confidentiality of information, the Court highlighted that “mere marking of a document, as ‘confidential’, in this case, did not undermine the overbearing nature of […]the Act” (para. 58).
The CPIO also submitted that access to asset information would result in unwarranted intrusion of judges’ privacy (para. 60). The Court found that Section 8(1)(j) of the Act indeed stipulated the exemption from disclosure of personal information of a third party on the ground of privacy (para. 61). The exemption applied irrespective of whether a third party was a private individual or a public official (para. 63). The Court noted that if the information concerns a third party, public interest in disclosure is required.” (para. 63). In case of public servants, the degree of their privacy protection was lower and thus a larger public interest in disclosure was more likely to override the interest in privacy (para. 67). Once the information requester demonstrated “the larger public interest”, the next step for a relevant authority was to consult a third party (the public servant) (para. 70) and eventually to balance the interest in disclosure against the privacy concerns (para. 66).
The Court ordered the CPIO to release information about asset declarations made by the judges of the Supreme Court, but not their content as the requester did not seek for it (para. 85).
On 13 November 2009 the Supreme Court of India upheld the decision of the High Court of Delhi.
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