20 Jun 2023 7:59 AM GMT
The Chhattisgarh High Court has held that the provision of ‘penalty’ prescribed under Section 20(1) of the Right to Information Act, 2005 (RTI Act), for default in supply of information within the period specified under Section 7(1), is not mandatory in nature. While dismissing a writ appeal against the same conclusion reached by a Single Judge Bench, the Division Bench of Justice Sanjay...
The Chhattisgarh High Court has held that the provision of ‘penalty’ prescribed under Section 20(1) of the Right to Information Act, 2005 (RTI Act), for default in supply of information within the period specified under Section 7(1), is not mandatory in nature.
While dismissing a writ appeal against the same conclusion reached by a Single Judge Bench, the Division Bench of Justice Sanjay K. Agrawal and Justice Arvind Singh Chandel observed,
“…we are of the considered opinion that it was not mandatory on the part of the State Information Commission to impose a penalty of Rs. 16,500/- upon respondent No. 2 without recording a specific finding that negligence on the part of respondent No. 2 was persistent and without reasonable cause. As, such, Section 20(1) of the Act of 2005 cannot be held to be mandatory”
On account of delay of 66 days in supply of information sought by him, the appellant filed a complaint under Section 18(1)(c) and (f) of the RTI Act before the Chhattisgarh State Information Commission (SIC) on the ground that information sought was not provided to him within a period of 30 days as specified under Section 7(1) of the Act.
Therefore, as per Section 20(1) of the Act, he sought a penalty of Rs. 250/- per day to be imposed upon the Public Information Officer (PIO), which amounts to Rs. 16,500/- (Rs. 250 x 66). However, the SIC imposed a penalty of Rs. 2000/- only which was challenged by the appellant before the High Court through a writ petition.
A Single Judge Bench rejected the writ petition. Therefore, this writ appeal was preferred by the appellant questioning the legality, validity and correctness of the impugned order passed by the Single Judge dismissing the writ petition.
On behalf of the appellant, it was submitted that the penalty to be imposed upon the PIO in terms of Section 20(1) of the Act of 2005 is mandatory in nature and once negligence is found to have been made by the PIO in supplying the information, then the SIC does not have the discretion not to impose penalty as prescribed under the provision.
Thus, it was argued, since there was a delay of 66 days in supplying the information sought by the appellant, a penalty amounting to Rs. 16,500 should have been imposed upon the PIO. Reliance was placed upon a number of judgments and the Lok Sabha Debates on the RTI Bill, 2004 to support the plea that Section 20(1) of the Act of 2005 is mandatory in nature.
Per contra, it was submitted for the respondent-commission that it has duly considered the facts and circumstances of the case and has rightly come to the conclusion to impose a penalty of Rs. 2000/- upon the PIO as there was no deliberate withholding of the information on his part.
Therefore, the main moot question before the Division Bench was to decide whether the penalty prescribed under Section 20(1) for default in supplying information within statutorily specified period is mandatory or merely directory. Referring to the words of the provision, the Court held,
“…unless one of the three findings are recorded that the Public Information Officer has without any reasonable cause and persistently failed to receive an application for information or has not furnished within 30 days under Section 7(1) of the Act of 2005 or malafidely denied the request for information or knowingly given incorrect, incomplete or misleading information or destroyed information which was the subject of the request or obstructed in any manner in furnishing the information, the Commission shall not impose penalty upon the Public Information Officer.”
The Court relied upon the decision of the Apex Court in Manohar v. State of Maharashtra, wherein it was held that the SIC is vested with wide powers including imposition of penalty or taking of disciplinary action against the employees. It said that the provisions relating to penalty or to penal consequences have to be construed strictly.
It further underlined the observation made by the top Court in the aforesaid judgment that the word “shall” appearing in Section 20(2) of the Act of 2005 before 'recommend' has to be read as “may”.
Having regard for the aforesaid position and taking into consideration the fact that provisions relating to penalty or penal consequences have drastic civil consequences upon the PIO, the Court was of the considered opinion that it is not mandatory on the part of the SIC to impose the prescribed amount of penalty as provided under Section 20(1).
“As such Section 20(1) of the Act of 2005 cannot be held to be mandatory and in view of the aforesaid discussion, we do not find any merit in this writ appeal and we hereby affirm the order passed by learned Single Judge,” the Court remarked while dismissing the writ appeal.
Case Title: Nitin Singhvi v. Chhattisgarh State Information Commission & Anr.
Citation: 2023 LiveLaw (Chh) 15
Case No.: Writ Appeal No. 215 of 2020
Judgment Dated: June 12, 2023
Counsel for the Appellant: Mr. Saurabh Dangi, Advocate
Counsel for the Respondent: Mr. Virendra Vaishnav, Advocate on behalf of Mr. Harsh Wardhan, Advocate
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