Madras HC makes a distinction between the ‘right to information’ & the ‘right to seek information’
B Bharathi had filed six applications before the Public Information Officer (PIO) of the Madras high court under the RTI Act seeking information regarding:
· his complaint against the chief metropolitan magistrate, Egmore;
· recruitment rules for the post of registrar general;
· action taken on his application filed in October 2011 regarding the appointment and selection of registrar general along with copies of petitions he had filed earlier;
· his complaint against the magistrate and the action taken thereof, and
· file notings of his complaint against a woman advocate.
Further, he had also filed 47 other RTI applications before the court. The PIO of the High Court offered inspection of the files concerning the magistrate to Bharathi. The PIO replied that the information sought for by the applicant is exempt from disclosure and refused to furnish the same. Bharathi was informed that there were no recruitment rules for registrar general and his complaint against the advocate was pending before the court.
On a second appeal, the Central Information Commissioner (CIC) directed the registrar (administration) and the PIO to provide attested photocopies of the relevant documents for his six appeals. The CIC further asked Bharathi to send a tabular statement listing all complaints pertaining to his 47 applications while pointing out that the disclosure of information must be commensurate with smooth functioning of public authorities. The CIC observed that this was a case where an individual had overloaded and diverted the resources of the public authority.
The PIO filed a writ petition against the January 23, 2013 order of the CIC before the HC alleging that Bharathi's aim was to derail the administration by misusing the RTI provisions and bring it embarrassment and ridicule. The division bench of Justice N Paul Vasanthkumar and Justice K Ravichandrabaabu held that:
· the appointment of registrar could not be brought under the RTI Act as it pertained to
- the internal functioning of the court, and
- was not related to public interest.
· Bharathi’s complaint against the magistrate had been closed and the matter regarding the advocate was pending with the court.
· The CIC's order regarding the other 47 applications was bereft of any material particulars and the direction issued to the PIO in that regard is not sustainable
· Bharathi was pulled up for overloading the HC Registry by making multiple queries or complaints under the RTI Act leading to diversion of its resources. The Court observed that the dispensation of information should not occupy the majority of time and resource of any public authority.
· The bench made a distinction between the ‘right to information’ and the ‘right to seek information’, observing that the word ‘Right’ is not defined under the RTI Act, 2005. The bench held that in the absence of any definition of ‘right’, it has to be understood to mean that such a right must have a legal basis. Therefore, the ‘right’ must be coupled with an object or purpose to be achieved. Such object and purpose must, undoubtedly, have a legal basis or be legally sustainable and enforceable. It cannot be construed that a request or query made ‘simpliciter’ will fall under the definition of ‘right to information’.
Section 6 (2) of the RTI Act reads: “An applicant making request for information shall not be required to give any reason for requesting the information….” The Madras High Court ruling seems to convey that it the purpose of seeking the information is either absent or not disclosed, such query cannot be construed as the one satisfying the requirement of the RTI Act, 2005. Does it amount to redefining the nature and scope of the RTI Act, 2005? The order of the High Court has ignited a debate whether anyone seeking information under the RTI Act has to show the purpose of seeking information - is it personal or of public interest. Is the RTI applicant required to disclose the minimum details as to what is the personal or public interest for seeking such information?