In a significant judgment, the High Court of Kerala on Thursday held that information about one's bank accounts and income tax returns constitute personal and private information.
Therefore, demanding disclosure of such information without statutory backing will result in the violation of right to privacy under Article 21 of the Constitution of India, ruled the division bench comprising of Justices C K Abdul Rehim and Narayana Pisharady.
The judgment was given in writ appeals filed by several petroleum outlet retailers against the insistence of oil marketing companies to furnish details of bank accounts and income tax returns for dealership agreements.
The single judge rejected the contention of retailers that such information was protected by right to privacy. It was held that the condition to furnish such information was part of dealership agreements voluntarily executed by the dealers.
Challenging the single bench judgment, the dealers approached the division bench.
Advocate Santhosh Mathew, appearing for the appellants, cited before the division bench the Supreme Court in K S Puttaswamy's case, where privacy was declared to be a facet of right to life.
Agreeing with the appellants' contentions, the division bench said :
"There can be no doubt with regard to the fact that details of the bank account of a person constitute personal and private information. The statement of account of a person in a bank would reveal the amount in deposit in the bank and the amounts deposited and withdrawn in the past. It would give a clear picture of a person's financial capacity. It would disclose the cash transactions which a person had with third parties. It would reveal the amount transferred to and received by a person from another. It may show the loans availed of by a person from the bank. Habits of a person, his life style, his association with other persons and many other personal matters can be deduced from a close scrutiny of his bank account for some period. Therefore, we have no hesitation to hold that details of the bank account of a person constitute personal information and that any demand made to disclose such information amounts to infringement of his right to privacy."
There is an element of confidentiality between a bank and its customers in relation to the latter's banking transactions, said the Court, referring to SC decision in District Registrar and Collector v. Canara Bank : AIR 2005 SC 186.
The bench added :
"The right to privacy is not lost as a result of confidential information being parted with by the customer to the custody of the bank. Parting with information to the bank does not destroy its privacy. Moreover, the bank is under obligation to maintain secrecy of such information unless disclosure of it is required by law. The relationship between a bank and the customer is fiduciary in nature."
Likewise, the judgment authored by Justice Abdul Rehim added that information of income tax returns will also come under the ambit of right to privacy.
"Any information which discloses remittances made to the Income Tax Department towards discharge of tax liability would constitute personal information. A demand for furnishing income tax returns filed by a person would constitute invasion of the privacy of a person."
In Girish Ramchandra Deshpande v. Central Information Commissioner: (2013) 1 SCC 212, in the context of Section 8 of the Right to Information Act, the Apex Court has held that, the details disclosed by a person in his income tax returns are personal information, observed the bench.
The Court did not agree with the contention of Senior Advocate P Gopinath Menon that the demand by oil marketing companies constituted a reasonable restriction on right to privacy, as it was made to assess the financial capacity of the prospective dealers. It was further contended that such information will help to curb the practices of benami dealerships.
Rejecting these contentions, the Court held that such demand can be made only on the strength of a law and not on the basis of a circular issued by the companies.
"On the basis of a contract between an individual and a body corporate, right to privacy of that individual cannot be infringed. A contract entered into between two parties, even if one party is a State, cannot be said to be a law."
The Court also rejected the contention of companies that information of tax returns was not personal or private.
"Income tax returns or the bank account statements of a person would contain many other information. It will not be possible to segregate the details regarding the dealership of the appellants from such records and to furnish them to the second respondent."
Since the demand of private information did not pass the "test of legality" - that the demand is based on a statutory law - laid down in the Puttaswamy judgment, the Court held that there was no need to consider whether such demand satisfied the tests of "necessity" and "proportionality".
Allowing the appeals, the Court held that the companies "have got no right to require the appellants to furnish their income tax returns and the bank account statements, as a condition for continuing the petroleum retail dealership granted to them."
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