Access to Public Information, Privacy, Data Protection and Retention
Mail and Guardian Media Ltd v. Chipu N.O.
Closed Contracts Expression
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The Supreme Court of India held that annual confidential reports (ACR) of a public officer constituted ‘personal information’ and were therefore exempt from mandatory disclosure to a third person under the Right to Information Act, 2005. The appellant, Mr. R.K. Jain, had sought information on a Tribunal Member relating to adverse entries in her ACR and the ‘follow up action’ taken on the question of integrity. Relying strongly on its own precedent in Girish Ramchandra Deshpande vs Cen.Information Commr.& Ors, the Court reasoned that information relating to charges, penalties or sanctions imposed on an employee and records containing information of such nature or incidental to it were necessarily a matter between employee and employer the disclosure of which had no relationship to any public activity or public interest and would cause an unwarranted invasion of privacy. The Court also reiterated that it was the prerogative of the competent authority to decide if such information could be disclosed in the greater public interest but that the petitioner cannot claim those details as a matter of right.
In 2009 the appellant, Mr. R.K. Jain, applied to the Information Officer for copies of all note sheets and correspondence pages of a file relating to Ms. Jyoti Balasundram, a Judicial Member of the Customs, Excise and Service Tax Appellate Tribunal, pursuant to the Right to Information (RTI) Act. The information sought was denied by the Central Public Information Officer on the grounds that the requested file contained analysis of Ms. Jyoti Bapasundram’s ACR which was personal information, the disclosure of which was exempt under section 8(1)(j) of the RTI Act.
Subsequent appeals to the Director and Appellate Authority and the Central Information Commission were rejected on the basis that it was personal information which can only be disclosed if there is an overriding public interest in the dissemination of such information.
Mr. Jain then appealed to the Delhi High Court and from there to the Division Bench of the High Court of Delhi which rejected the application and restated that the ACR record of an officer cannot be disclosed to any person other than the officer himself/herself.
The appellant then appealed to the Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court considered two questions: firstly, whether ACR of an officer constituted personal information because, if they were, then disclosure of such information to a third party would constitute an exception under the RTI Act: and, secondly, whether there was a public interest in dissemination of the information in question that would outweigh the privacy of the person on whom the information was sought.
After referring to the handful of judicial precedents of High Courts of different States cited by the opposing parties, the Supreme Court preferred instead to rely on its own judgment in Girish Ramchandra Deshpande v. Central Information Commissioner and ors. In that case the Court had held that information relating to charges, penalties or sanctions imposed on an employee and records containing information of such nature or incidental to it were necessarily a matter between employee and employer the disclosure of which has no relationship to any public activity or public interest and would cause an unwarranted invasion of privacy. The Court in that case had also reiterated that if, in a given case, the Information Officer or and appellate authority is satisfied that the larger public interest justifies the disclosure of such information, appropriate orders could be passed but that the petitioner cannot claim those details as a matter of right.
The Supreme Court in the present case reiterated its precedent, dismissed the appeal and reaffirmed the findings of the Division Bench.
Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.
The decision contracts expression by finding that a public official’s privacy outweighs the right to information about that public official and the Court leaves it up to the designated information officers to determine that question in accordance with section 11 of the RTI Act.
Global Perspective demonstrates how the court’s decision was influenced by standards from one or many regions.
Case significance refers to how influential the case is and how its significance changes over time.
The judgment reiterates the position taken in Girish Ramchandra Deshpande v. Central Information Commissioner and others reported in (2013) 1 SCC 212, namely that the ACR (Annual Confidential Report) of a public official is a document in the nature of personal information under the RTI Act. Further, the decision affirms that determination as to when the disclosure of such information would qualify as compelling in the larger public interest remains within the remit of the Information Commissioners, as intended by the Legislature.
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