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Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) and Another v. Union of India and Another

Case number:
AIR[2003] SC 2363
Country:
India
Date of decision:
13 March 2003
Court / Arbiter:
Supreme Court ( Supreme )

Relevant law :
Constitution, Article 19(a) (freedom of speech and expression), Article 19(2) (exemptions);
Representation of the People Act ( Constitution, Other Law )

Decision:

Voters have a fundamental right to know relevant qualifications of candidates for office, including information about their income and assets. Accordingly, a section of a law stating that candidates could not be compelled to disclose any information about themselves other than their criminal records was unconstitutional.


Keywords:
Constitution
Freedom of expression (including RTI as element of or integral to)
Income and assets
Personal information (including personnel files, other records concerning or held by public servants)
Political information (including candidates, elections, political parties)
Privacy (harm to private interests, including life, health, safety)

Case details:

Facts

In the earlier case of Union of India v. Association for Democratic Reforms and Another (2002), the Supreme Court had held that citizens have a right to know about public functionaries and candidates for office, including their assets and criminal and educational backgrounds, and found that right to be derived from the constitutional right to freedom of speech and expression. The Parliament then essentially nullified part of that ruling by amending the Representation of the People Act so as to require political candidates to disclose certain criminal records; namely, any charges or convictions for any offence punishable with imprisonment for two years or more. Moreover, the Act expressly stated that no candidate could be compelled to disclose any additional information, including educational qualifications and assets and liabilities, “notwithstanding  anything contained in the judgment of any court or directions issued by the Election Commission” (Section 33B).

The petitioner in the instant case, the Union for Civil Liberties (UCL), filed a petition with the Supreme Court challenging the constitutionality of Section 33B. In particular, UCL contended that the provision was arbitrary on its face and violated fundamental rights of the voters as previously recognized by the Supreme Court; and “that  without exercise  of  the right to know  the relevant  antecedents  of  the candidate,  it  will  not  be possible  to have free and fair  elections” (p. 6). The interveners submitted that the Amended Act was consistent with the 2002 judgment (p. 6) and “that it cannot be held that a voter has any fundamental right of knowing the antecedents/assets of a candidate contesting the election” (p. 32).

Decision

The Court reiterated the main findings in Union of India v. Association for Democratic Reforms and Another.

It observed that the judgment in that case was a final decision that had precedential effect and that, accordingly, Article 19(1) of the Constitution (freedom of speech and expression) should be interpreted to include a “fundamental right [of the voters’] to know relevant antecedents of the candidate contesting the elections” (p. 9). In other words, “information to a voter […] is one facet of the fundamental right [of freedom of speech and expression] […]” (p. 20).The Court ruled that Parliament cannot exercise its powers in violation of fundamental rights and has no power to declare a court’s decision as void or of no effect (p. 24). Therefore, once the Supreme Court held that a voter has a fundamental right to know candidates’ qualifications, this right may be limited only in cases provided by Article 19(2) of the Constitution (p. 24).The fundamental right of the voters to know relevant qualifications of the candidate is independent of any statutory rights under the election law (p. 41); when a statutory provision violates a fundamental right, such provision must be struck down (p. 35).

With respect to the relationship between the right to access asset declarations  of  the  candidates and the right to privacy, the Court emphasized that the right to privacy is not absolute and “a person having assets or income is normally required to disclose the same under the Income Tax Act  or such  similar fiscal legislation” (pp. 29-30). This is especially true for candidates for public offices. Disclosure of asset declarations is “ the  necessity  of  the  day  because  of  statutory  provisions  of controlling  wide  spread  corrupt practices” (p. 30).

For all of the above reasons, the Court declared Section 33-B of the Amended Act “to be illegal, null and void” (p. 41).

Resources:

Judgment of the Court.

Judgment in Union of India v. Association for Democratic Reforms and Another (2002).