'Sunshine In The Courts': Vidhi 's New Report Ranks HCs On Their Compliance With RTI Act [Read Report]

Pursuant an extensive exercise undertaken by the Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy (VCLP), a report titled 'Sunshine in the Courts' has been released by it, assessing the degree of compliance of all the High Court's across the country, except the High Court of Jammu and Kashmir, with the provisions of the RTI Act, 2005.

High Courts, being constitutional bodies, are also covered under the ambit of the RTI Act and therefore, every high court is required to draft RTI Rules to lay down a procedure for filing RTI applications. The Report, based on certain criteria devised by the VCLP itself, has ranked the high courts on four different indexes.

These are: Legality Index, Convenience Index, Practice Index and Disclosures Index.

The report is accompanied with certain blanket suggestions for all the high courts and with separate report cards for each of the high court, containing personalized recommendations, based on their performance on the above named indexes.

On the culmination of the report, the VCLP concluded that there was a "yawning gap" between the judicial pronouncements vis-a-vis the right to information and the manner in which the High Courts had been implementing the RTI Act.

"Not only are the RTI Rules of several High Courts ultra vires the RTI Act, they also provide for a relatively inconvenient procedure when compared to the RTI Rules of the Government of India. Most importantly, the PIOs of the High Courts need to be sensitized that rejection of RTI applications should be the exception, not the norm," it said.

Legality Index

This index measures the legality of the RTI Rules made by each High Court under Section 28 of the RTI Act.

Section 28 empowers all competent authorities under the Act to make rules to carry out the provisions of the RTI Act. It delegates substantial power to each public authority to fix the fees payable for filing RTI applications, the cost of providing information, the mode by which the fee and cost can be paid to the public authority, etc.

Those High Courts whose rules were in compliance with the criteria devised by VCLP were given additional points while 10 points were deducted for every violation.

While the High Courts of Madras and Jharkhand topped the index, the High Courts of Meghalaya and Gujarat filled the bottom spaces. Notably however, all the high courts scored in negative, indicating that none of them could stand the test of legality.

Convenience Test

Notwithstanding the legality of the High Court RTI Rules, certain rules may make it extremely inconvenient for citizens to file RTI applications. For instance, none of the high courts, apart from Madhya Pradesh High Court, allow for applications to be filed or payment of RTI fees to be made online, thereby making it difficult for non-residents to obtain information.

Therefore, VPLR tested these rules on the touchstone of citizens' convenience in filing an RTI application at a High Court, treating the Government of India, RTI Rules 2012, as the benchmark, to maintain objectivity.

If the High Courts had similar provisions as under the GoI Rules, no points were deducted. However, if the Rules provided comparatively less convenient mechanisms then points were deducted. Further, additional points were given if the high court procedure was more convenient than the government rules.

The High Courts at Patna, Delhi and Kerala were the top performers on this index whilst the High Courts at Gujarat, Madras, Meghalaya and Chhattisgarh performed the worst. All the high courts scored in negative on this index as well.

Oddly, RTI Rules of nine High Courts viz., Andhra Pradesh, Calcutta, Delhi, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Kerala, Orissa, Telangana and Uttarakhand, do not mention the name of the authority to whom the fees for filing an application is to be addressed.

Practice Index

This index was created with the purpose to measure the responses by Public Information Officers of High Courts.

To assess the same, 3 sets of RTI applications, seeking information on budget statements, audit reports and statistical information of the high courts, were filed by VCPL. All the high courts are obligated under Section 17 of the Commercial Courts Act, 2015, to maintain this information.

Points were awarded if the High Courts provided good quality information and answered each question individually and deducted, if the PIOs did not furnish the information.

While the High Courts at Delhi, Karnataka and Kerala topped the index with a positive score of 50, the Chhattisgarh High Court scored as low as -80.

Disclosures Index

This index assessed whether or not the high courts disclosed information about their functioning, in compliance with Section 4(1)(b) of the RTI Act.

Section 4(1)(b) creates a mandate for public authorities to proactively disclose and disseminate information about their functioning.

To assess the quality of the disclosures made by each High Court, VCLP categorized information on the basis of relevancy and high courts were ranked for in the order of such relevancy.

Based on its assessment, VCLP commented,

"The lack of good quality proactive disclosures by several High Courts, on their websites, marks the failure of the High Courts to discharge a specific statutory obligation imposed under Section 4(1)(b) of the RTI Act. The lack of administrative transparency, especially financial transparency, within High Courts is a matter of grave concern."

The Kerala and the Punjab and Haryana High Courts topped the list and the High Courts of Chhattisgarh and Karnataka remained at the bottom. Considerably, only 15 High Courts had made disclosures on their website and the remaining 9 High Courts, viz. Andhra Pradesh, Calcutta, Manipur, Meghalaya, Patna, Rajasthan, Sikkim, Telangana and Tripura, did not make any disclosures on their websites.

Recommendations

The report made the following blanket recommendations for all the high court:

  1. Publication of RTI Rules on the High Court website in the local language of the state. Presently, only two High Courts make available their RTI Rules in local language;
  2. Reduction of RTI fees levied from the applicants, to the levels charged by the Government of India;
  3. Set up more modes of payment of RTI to increase convenience.

Disclosures by District Courts

In addition to creating the disclosure index for high courts, the VCLP also measured the compliance of the distinct courts with regards to such disclosures under Section 4(1)(b) of the RTI Act, by surveying the e-court websites of 673 Districts.

As per the report, only a miniscule number of District Courts made the required disclosures. While the District Courts in Kerala, Punjab and Haryana made satisfactory disclosures, none of the District Courts in Assam, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and West Bengal made any disclosures under the Act.

"Since High Courts are responsible for the administration of District Courts it is contingent on the former to ensure that the latter complies with the law," the report read.

The report also indicated that five high courts viz., Bombay, Chhattisgarh, Delhi, Kerala and Punjab & Haryana, had separate RTI Rules to cover the High Courts and the District Courts, whereas four High Courts viz., Gujarat, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh and Patna, had no Rules for District Courts.

Other Takeaways

  1. In 2012, the Government of India advised RTI applicants to restrict RTI applications to a word limit of 500 words but with the caveat that an application could not be rejected for crossing the word limit of 500 words. Nevertheless, many high court have imposed restrictions such as word limit, limit on the number of subject matters, etc., on a single RTI Application. Such restrictions have time and again been criticized by RTI activists who are worried that such limitations on question formats etc. would make it easier for PIOs to reject RTI applications.
  2. Even though the RTI Act does not require any citizen to provide reasons justifying a request for information, thirteen High Courts mandate filing of a declaration of intent or knowledge while filing an RTI Application and/or Appeal.
  3. Bizarrely, the Chhattisgarh High Court mandatorily requires an applicant to appear before the public authority after the submission of an RTI application.

VCLP is an independent think-tank aimed at facilitating better laws to improve governance for the public good. The report was funded by the Vidhi-Tata Trusts Fellowship, under which fellows undertake research under the Justice, Access, and Lowering Delays in India (JALDI) project.

The report was prepared by Research Fellows of VCLP namely Vaidehi Misra, Chitrakshi Jain, Tarika Jain and Shreya Tripathy and Senior Resident Fellow of VCLP Prashant Reddy T. and it was reviewed by former Information Commissioner the Central Information Commissioner, Shailesh Gandhi.

The report concluded with an observation that while most of the conversation for greater judicial transparency focused on ensuring 'individual accountability' of judges, there was an urgent need to enhance 'institutional accountability' to ensure compliance.

[Read Report Here]