ON August 3, the Chief Information Commissioner, Satyananda Mishra, delivered two important decisions directing the Central Public Information Officer (CPIO) of the Supreme Court to answer certain questions about the functioning of the court to information-seekers in the manner they have sought it.
In the first case, Commodore Lokesh K. Batra (Retd) vs CPIO, Supreme Court of India, the appellant had sought details about those cases pending in the Supreme Court in which arguments had already been heard but orders were reserved. He sought the information for the period from 2007 to 2009. The CPIO, Smita Vats Sharma, who was present during the hearing, had not provided the information on the grounds that it was not available in that form. The Appellate Authority of the Supreme Court had endorsed her response.
During the hearing, the CPIO argued that the court ordinarily passed orders within two to four weeks of reserving them. About those rare cases (which she called aberrations) in which orders were not passed for a longer period, she said no specific data were maintained. She submitted that to compile the number of such cases, each case file would have to be scrutinised, a nearly impossible task given the volume of cases pending in the Supreme Court.
Lokesh Batra's counsel argued that if the Supreme Court had not been maintaining such information in the past, it was time that it did so in order to enlighten citizens. Counsel argued that the court had not delivered verdicts in some cases in which judgments had been reserved much earlier and that the details of such cases were not available to the general public.
For instance, in the narcoanalysis case, or Selvi vs State of Karnataka, the court did not deliver the judgment until two years had passed after reserving the verdict. (The Supreme Court held that compulsory use of narcoanalysis, brain mapping and polygraph tests on suspects was illegal.)
The CIC held that with computerisation, placing such data in the public domain should not be difficult. He directed the CPIO to provide to Lokesh Batra within 15 working days from the receipt of his order the desired information if available centrally, and if not available centrally, to bring it to the notice of the competent authority in the Supreme Court to ensure that necessary arrangements were made in future to compile such information and put it in the public domain.Statistical information
In the second case, Subhash Chandra Agrawal vs CPIO, Supreme Court of India, Agrawal had sought details of the following:
(1) Medical expenses incurred on individual judges of the Supreme Court; (2) Appointment of the retired judges of the Supreme Court as arbitrators; and (3) The number of resolutions passed by all the judges of the Supreme Court since 1997.
The CPIO did not provide information in any of these matters on the grounds that the desired information was personal in nature and that it had not maintained it in the form in which he had sought it. Medical expenses, she claimed, were listed under a general head rather than separately for individual judges and their families.
The CIC expressed surprise that the court did not have such simple statistical information as the total expenses incurred on medical reimbursement for individual judges or the list of resolutions passed in the meetings of all the judges of the Supreme Court. He held that all offices funded by the state had to maintain accounts of all expenses made on such heads as medical reimbursement against individual claims based on entitlements.
Citizens, he said, had a right to know whether a judge was medically fit to dispense justice even though one could not seek information about the health of a judge. He disagreed with the contention that the information on reimbursement of total medical expenses of individual judges could result in the sharing of their personal health histories. Agrawal, he pointed out, had not asked details about the nature of treatment undergone or the names of the medicines purchased by individual judges. The CIC also suggested that it was most unlikely that there were no data in the Supreme Court about the number of resolutions passed in the meetings of all the judges.
He directed the CPIO to verify the available records again and to provide Agrawal the following information within 15 working days from the receipt of his order:
i) The total amount of medical expenses of individual judges reimbursed by the Supreme Court during the last three years, both in India and abroad;
ii) A list of all the resolutions passed in the meetings of all the judges of the Supreme Court since March 25, 1997; and
iii) A copy of the rules/guidelines, if any, about the appointment of retired Supreme Court judges as arbitrators.
The CIC directed that if all or some of the information was not available for any reason, the CPIO should clearly and in a speaking manner state so in her communication to Agrawal. He asked her to bring it to the notice of the competent authority in the Supreme Court to ensure that arrangements were made in future to maintain such information, preferably digitally.V. Venkatesan