Access to Public Information
Company Doe v. Public Citizen
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The High Court of Madras (Madurai Bench) held that the Right to Information Act (RTI) could not be invoked for all purposes in the first instance where there were alternative mechanisms available within governmental departments and despite an overriding provision in the RTI. The petitioner applied to the High Court following the rejection of his requests for information concerning registered sales deeds by the Information Commission on the basis that there were alternative mechanisms for obtaining such information. The Court reasoned that if recourse to the RTI Act was allowed for all purposes regardless of the existence of other mechanisms to obtain sought information, it would not only destroy the framework and use of those alternative mechanisms but also run contrary to provisions in other Acts providing for the disclosure of information rendering them useless and unnecessary. Looking to the purpose of the Act, it said that its framers could not have intended for any requested information to be made available only under the RTI Act and not at all through other Acts. This decision flies in the face of Article 19(1) (a) of the Constitution of India which protects freedom of speech and expression in India.
The petitioner filed an application on June 8, 2012 under Section 6(1) of the Right to Information Act, 2005 (RTI) seeking certain information regarding two registered sale deeds dated June 2, 1890 and May 10, 1908 respectively. In response, the third respondent, the Sub Registrar of the Public Information Office, passed an order June 9, 2012 providing information which did not satisfy the petitioner. The petitioner’s appeal to the Registrar, the second respondent, was rejected following which the petitioner appealed to the first respondent, the Tamil Nadu State Information Commission. The Commission dismissed the second appeal on the basis that the information sought by the petitioner could be ascertained from the relevant government department and an application under RTI Act could not be entertained. The Commission said that the second and third respondents had properly refused to furnish the information as sought by the petitioner.
The petitioner applied to the Court under Article 226 of the Constitution of India for an order quashing the order passed by the first respondent and to direct the third respondent to furnish the information and copies of the documents sought by him in his initial application. The petitioner raised a number of grounds questioning the order passed by the respondents.
Judge V. Parthiban had to decide whether the impugned order passed by the respondents refusing to disclose all the information sought by petitioner was maintainable.
Counsel for the petitioner submitted that the provisions of the RTI Act override other laws and, therefore, the order passed by the first respondent refusing information could not be sustained in law. He also submitted that Section 4 of RTI Act, 2005 imposes obligations on the part of the public authorities, especially when information is being sought by the public and that information does not fall within any of the exemptions under Section 8 of the Act. Finally, Counsel referred the Court to an earlier case in which it held that the right to information is a facet of the freedom of “speech and expression” as contained in Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution of India.
Counsel said that the impugned order passed by the first respondent refusing to divulge the information was untenable in law, without justification and could not draw any support from the provisions of the RTI Act.
Counsel for the respondents countered that there was no defect in the order passed by the first respondent and there was no need for interference. He said that if there was an alternative mechanism for seeking the information requested, this should be used before making an application under a general act, such as the RTI Act.
The Judge stated that the RTI Act cannot be invoked for all purposes regardless of the fact that an alternative effective mechanism provided for seeking information under the respective government department. The Judge said that if such recourse was encouraged and entertained it would destroy the framework of the respective departments’ mechanism for providing information. Further, he noted that if the overriding provisions contained in Section 22 of the RTI Act were interpreted to mean that any kind of information could be obtained under the RTI Act, this would run contrary to provisions in other Acts providing for the disclosure of information making them useless and unnecessary. Looking to the purpose behind the Act, the Judge concluded that its framers could not have intended that any requested information could only be made available under the RTI Act and not at all through other Acts.
The Judge concluded that he was inclined to accept the submissions made on behalf of the first respondent and even more to consider himself bound by the Court’s earlier decisions to which he had been referred. He dismissed the petition “as devoid of merits”.
Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.
The decision contracts expression because it denies access to public documents under the Right to Information Act and flies in the face of Article 19(1) (a) of the Constitution of India which protects freedom of speech and expression in India.
Global Perspective demonstrates how the court’s decision was influenced by standards from one or many regions.
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