Access to Public Information
Company Doe v. Public Citizen
Closed Expands Expression
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The High Court of Delhi held that asset declarations of Supreme Court judges should be disclosed if there is public interest in disclosure; where the interest is shown, the authority should consult the judge concerned and balance the interest in disclosure against privacy concerns. The Court reasoned that while Section 8(1)(j) of the Right to Information (RTI) Act stipulated that disclosure of personal information of a third party was exempt from disclosure on the ground of privacy, the information has limited protection only and its disclosure is dependent upon the satisfaction of the competent authority that it would be in the larger public interest to disclose such information; further, in the case of public servants, the degree of privacy protection was lower so that a larger public interest in disclosure was more likely to prevail.
This case analysis was contributed by Right2Info.org.
In November 2007, the Applicant asked 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”.
The Court found that the Chief Justice’s office is a “public authority” within the meaning of the Right to Information (RTI) 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.
The CPIO argued that assuming that asset declarations constituted “information” under the Act, disclosure would breach a fiduciary duty owed to the judges. The rule of confidentiality of asset declarations was also found in the 1997 Resolution. The Court dismissed this argument pointing out that the CJI could not be a fiduciary vis-à-vis judges of the Supreme Court because judges held independent office and neither their affairs nor conduct was controlled by the CJI. As to the confidentiality of information, the Court highlighted that the “mere marking of a document, as ‘confidential’, in this case, did not undermine the overbearing nature of […]the Act”.
The CPIO also submitted that access to asset information would result in unwarranted intrusion of judges’ privacy. 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. The exemption applied irrespective of whether a third party was a private individual or a public official. The Court noted that if the information concerns a third party, “public interest in disclosure is required.” 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. Once the requester of information demonstrated “the larger public interest”, the next step for a relevant authority was to consult a third party (the public servant) and eventually to balance the interest in disclosure against the privacy concerns.
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 ask for it.
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