A division bench of the Kerala High Court has ruled that details of a person’s bank account is personal information and any demand to disclose such details without “passing the tests of legality, need and necessity, and proportionality’’ amounts to infringement of a citizen’s right to privacy enshrined in the Constitution.
The bench of C K Abdul Rahim and R Narayana Pisharadi was on Thursday hearing over a dozen writ petitions from retail fuel dealers who had challenged the demand of the public sector oil marketing firms that the dealers furnish sales tax returns, bank account statements and income tax returns pertaining to their dealership.
The dealers appealed to the division bench after a single-bench verdict held that details sought by the companies are with respect to the dealership and not with regard to any personal matter of the dealers.
The division bench did not find any merit in the argument that the dealers have an obligation to furnish such details. “On the basis of a contract between an individual and a body corporate, right to privacy of that individual cannot be infringed. A contract entered into between two parties, even if one party is a State, cannot be said to be a law.’’
Observing that the relationship between a bank and the customer is fiduciary, the court said the fact that the information is already available with the bank does not change the nature and the character of that information.
“The right to privacy is not lost as a result of confidential information being parted with by the customer to the custody of the bank…Moreover, the bank is under obligation to maintain secrecy of such information unless disclosure of it is required by law,’’ the bench observed.
The bench said any action by the state or its agencies which curb or restrict the right to privacy of a citizen should pass three tests; test of legality, that is, such action must have a legislative or statutory basis; test of need and necessity, that is, such action shall serve a definite purpose in public interest; and test of proportionality, that is, such action shall be at the minimum level required to achieve the object.
The oil firms argued that they were seeking dealers to furnish the information to ensure that the retail outlets are not operated on benami basis.
However, the court said the firms have no right to ask retail dealers to furnish their income tax returns and bank account statements as a condition for continuing the petroleum retail dealership granted to them.