The Delhi High Court Tuesday ruled that income tax returns and medical records do not fall under the purview of Right To Information (RTI) Act "unless public interest is attached" holding in its landmark judgment that the Chief Justice of India (CJI) came under the ambit of the transparency law.
Quoting an American writer that "one man's freedom of information is another man's invasion of privacy", a full bench of Chief Justice Ajit Prakash Shah and Justices S. Muralidhar and Vikramjit Sen said: "Personal information including tax returns, medical records etc. cannot be disclosed in view of Section 8(1)(j) of the act."
"If, however, the applicant can show sufficient public interest in disclosure, the bar (preventing disclosure) is lifted and after duly notifying the third party (the individual concerned with the information or whose records are sought) and after considering his views, the authority can disclose it," they said.
Highlighting how the right to information often clashes with the right to privacy, the court noted that the government stores a lot of information about individuals, supplied by the individuals themselves in applications made for obtaining various licences, permissions including passports, or through disclosures such as income tax returns or for census data.
"When an applicant seeks access to government records containing personal information concerning identifiable individuals, it is obvious that these two rights are capable of generating conflict," the court said, adding that "in some cases, this will involve disclosure of information pertaining to public officials. In others, it will involve disclosure of information concerning ordinary citizens. In each instance, the subject of the information can plausibly raise a privacy protection concern."
However, the court ruled that notes made by the judges do not come under the RTI act, the court said the notes taken by judges while hearing a case cannot be treated as final views expressed by them on the case. "They are meant only for the use of the judges and cannot be held to be a part of a record 'held' by the public authority. However, if the judge turns in notes along with the rest of his files to be maintained as a part of the record, the same may be disclosed."
Maintaining that the right to information may not always have a linkage with the freedom of speech, the court said: "If a citizen gets information, certainly his capacity to speak will be enhanced."
"But many a time, he needs information which may have nothing to do with his desire to speak. He may wish to know how an administrative authority has used its discretionary powers. He may need information as to whom the petrol pumps have been allotted. The right to information is required to make the exercise of discretionary powers by the executive transparent and, therefore, accountable because such transparency will act as a deterrent against unequal treatment," the court said.