Delhi High Court has given relief to a Notary Public who could not produce the documents asked for in an RTI application as the same were destroyed by the termites.
While quashing the punishment imposed by the Central Information Commission, the Single Bench of Justice Jayant Nath noted that given the difficult conditions that Notaries work and given that no specific procedure was brought to the notice of the court prescribed for storing records, it is quite possible that termites may have damaged the relevant record.
In the present matter, the Petitioner had challenged the order of the Central Information Commission, which had the Petitioner guilty under section 20 of the Right To Information Act, and had imposed a penalty of ₹25,000.
The CIC in its order had observed that:
If records are eaten by termites, the Notary owes an explanation to the people why she failed to prevent it… This act was a glaring example of poor record maintenance leading to 'inaccess'... this is a serious negligence, lethargy in complacence and preservation of the public records and neither the PIO nor the Notary showed any sign of regret or remorse about termite destruction… the ground of 'file missing' or 'not traceable' or 'eaten away by termites' is a ground which has no legal base and amounts to breach of the Public Records Act, 1993.'
The facts of the case pertain to an RTI application filed by the Respondent in 2015 seeking information on his property papers dating back to 2008.
The Petitioner replied to the application by stating that both under the RTI Act and the Evidence Act, functions of a notary are confidential in nature. Therefore, third party has no locus to enquire about confidential information of hundreds of entries noted by a notary public in his register which are third party transactions.
The Petitioner further submitted that while looking for records which we kept with disposed of matters she found that some of the records and documents were eaten by termites. Only the record for the year 2013 (half eaten by termites) could be cleaned and recovered.
The Respondent pleaded that the Petitioner should have ensured that the information is provided in compliance with the order of the CIC.
It was further argued that the Petitioner is not only guilty of non-compliance of the order of the CIC but has deliberately denied the information and has blatantly concocted a false story of termites having eaten the government‟s key records.
After considering the submissions, the court observed that:
'The contention that Notary collects huge money through attestation appears to be a misplaced conclusion. Most Notaries function under difficult conditions and the fees received cannot be termed to be ‟huge money.'
The court also noted that the Petitioner is a practicing advocate with 23 years experience. Therefore, there's no reason to disbelieve the statement made on oath. The Respondent, the court observed, except making bold allegations against the Petitioner could not even show any fact which would lead to the conclusion that the version of the petitioner is wrong.
Therefore, the court held that the Petitioner cannot be held guilty under section 20 of the RTI Act of having either destroyed information or has malafidely denied the request for information. The penalty has been wrongly imposed