Less than four months after a five-judge bench of the Supreme Court opened the office of the Chief Justice of India to scrutiny under the Right to Information (RTI) Act, another bench of the top court on Wednesday ruled that court documents such as copies of judgments and pleadings can be obtained only if court rules permit it, and not under the RTI Act.
“The information is held by the High Court as a trustee for the litigants in order to adjudicate upon the matter and administer justice. The same cannot be permitted by the third party to have access to such personal information of the parties [litigants] or information given by the government in the proceedings. Lest, there would be misuse of process of court and the information and it would reach unmanageable levels,” the bench comprising Justices R Banumathi, A S Bopanna and Hrishikesh Roy said.
The bench upheld Rule 151 of Gujarat High Court Rules, which allows access to certified copies of judgments, orders and pleadings to a third-party — or those not party to a case — only under the order of an officer of the court.
While RTI Act does not prohibit seeking such information, the petitioner sought the information under the statute, instead of the HC rules. “In the absence of inherent inconsistency between provisions of the RTI Act and other law, overriding effect of RTI Act would not apply,” the apex court held.
As per the rules, on filing of application with prescribed court fees stamp, litigants are entitled to receive copies of documents/judgments, etc. Third parties are not given copies of judgments and other documents without the assistant registrar’s order. The registrar, on being satisfied about the reasonable cause for seeking the information/certified copies of the documents, allows access to the documents.
Bombay, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Karnataka and Madras among other HCs have similar provisions for furnishing information or certified copies to third parties.
In a unanimous decision in November last year, a five-judge bench had said that “transparency does not undermine judicial independence” while bringing the CJI office under RTI.
In Wednesday’s decision, the bench did not refer to the November 2019 decision and, instead, relied on a 2017 decision of Delhi HC, in which the court had denied information to a petitioner on why his special leave petition was dismissed. In practice, Supreme Court does not give reasons for dismissing an appeal. If admitted, notice is issued to the parties and the case is heard in detail.
“Since the issue before us is the High Court Rules vis-a-vis the RTI Act, we do not propose to refer the various observations of the case…” the bench said.