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Public Authority To Give Cogent Reasons For Claiming Exemption From Disclosure Of Information Sought Under The RTI Act: Delhi High Court

Srishti Ojha
5 Feb 2021 4:07 PM GMT
Public Authority To Give Cogent Reasons For Claiming Exemption From Disclosure Of Information Sought Under The RTI Act: Delhi High Court
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Delhi High Court has on Friday observed that when a public authority withholds information under RTI Act, the burden is on the public authority to show in what manner disclosure of such information could impede the investigation. While noting that it is a settled legal position that the public authority needs to give cogent reasons as to how the investigation will be hampered...

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Delhi High Court has on Friday observed that when a public authority withholds information under RTI Act, the burden is on the public authority to show in what manner disclosure of such information could impede the investigation. While noting that it is a settled legal position that the public authority needs to give cogent reasons as to how the investigation will be hampered by disclosure of the information sought, the Court remanded the present matter back to the Central Information Commission for reconsideration.

A single Bench of Justice Jayant Nath made the observations in an appeal filed against an order passed by CIC holding that non-disclosure of information was justified and exemption could be claimed under the RTI Act, as the petitioner had pending criminal and disciplinary proceedings against him.

The present petition was filed seeking directions to impugn the order dated 15th January 2018 passed by the Central Information Commission (CIC), whereby it allowed the Central Public Information Officer to sustain their stand for non-disclosure of the information by claiming exemption under Section 8(1) (h) of the RTI Act.

Facts

The petitioner in the present case filed an RTI application was filed by him in September 2016 under Rule 6 of the Right to Information Act, 2005 seeking disclosure of information by the petitioner, the CPIO did not provide correct information and misled regarding the other issues. The CPIO did not disclose information claiming exemption under Section 8(1) (h) of the RTI Act.

The petitioner appealed before the First Appellate Authority but it did not decide the appeal of the petitioner in the defined period. During the hearing before the Second Appellate Authority CIC, the CIC believed the verbal submissions of the CPIO instead of the written submissions of the petitioner and allowed them to sustain their stand for non-disclosure of the information in respect of all the points by claiming exemption under Section 8(1) (h) of the RTI Act.

Section 8(1) (h) of the RTI Act, deals with provision for Exemption from disclosure of information, and states that information which would impede the process of investigation or apprehension or prosecution of offenders need not be disclosed to any citizen.

Court's Observations

The impugned order of the CIC dismissed the appeal of the petitioner holding that the proceedings initiated by CBI against him are pending in the criminal court and the Disciplinary proceedings against him are pending before the Disciplinary Authority and therefore , the matter is covered under Section 8(1) (h) of the RTI Act.

The Court has noted that the petitioner in his writ petition has suppressed several facts including details regarding the grave allegations against him and the pending criminal and departmental proceedings against him. Such suppression of facts itself, is sufficient to dismiss the writ petition. However, the CIC dismissed the appeal of the petitioner holding that the proceedings initiated by CBI are pending and exemption can be claimed under Section 8 of the RTI Act.

The Court considered the case of Union of India vs. Manjit Singh Bali, 2018, where the High Court had observed that the exclusion under Section 8(1)(h) of the RTI Act - information which would impede process of investigation or apprehension or prosecution of the offenders - has to be read in conjunction with Article 19(2) of the Constitution of India. Such denial must be reasonable and in the interest of public order.

Another case cited was Bhagat Singh vs. Chief Information Commissioner & Ors., (2008), where the High Court had made the following observations:

" Rights based enactment is akin to a welfare measure, like the Act, should receive a liberal interpretation. The contextual background and history of the Act is such that the exemptions, outlined in Section 8, relieving the authorities from the obligation to provide information, constitute restrictions on the exercise of the rights provided by it. Therefore, such exemption provisions have to be construed in their terms; there is some authority supporting this view. Adopting a different approach would result in narrowing the rights and approving a judicially mandated class of restriction on the rights under the Act, which is unwarranted."

The Court examined Section 8 (1) (h) of the RTI Act and observed that what follows from the legal position is that where a public authority takes recourse this section, to withhold information, the burden is on the public authority to show that in what manner disclosure of such information could impede the investigation. The word 'impede' would mean anything that would hamper or interfere with the investigation or prosecution of the offender.

The CIC relied upon the other orders passed by the Coordinate Benches of the CIC and noted that while in criminal law, an investigation is completed with the filing of the charge sheet, in cases of vigilance related inquiries and disciplinary matters, the word 'investigation' used in Section 8 (1) (h) of the Act should be construed rather broadly and include all enquiries, verification of records, and assessments. In all such cases, the enquiry or the investigation should be taken as completed only after the competent authority makes a prima facie determination about presence or absence of guilt on receipt of the investigation/enquiry report from the investigating/enquiry officer.

The Court further observed that the legal position as settled by the High court is that cogent reasons have to be given by the public authority as to how and why the investigation or prosecution will get impaired or hampered by giving the information in question. However, the CIC in its order made no attempt whatsoever to show as to how giving the information sought for would hamper the investigation and the on-going disciplinary proceedings.

The Court therefore decided to quash the CIC's order as by not spelling out the reasons as to how the investigation or prosecution will be hampered, it found the Respondents justified in withholding the information. The Court also remanded the matter back to CIC for consideration afresh in terms of the legal position by the High Court in the present matter.

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