Thursday, February 28, 2013

PIL Challenging High Court of Punjab and Haryana Right to Information Rules

A Public Interest Litigation Petition (PIL) challenging provisions of the High Court of Punjab and Haryana (Right to Information) Rules, 2007, ("Rules") as well as identically framed rules for the subordinate judiciary of the Punjab, Haryana and Chandigarh was filed by me on 14th February  A copy of the petition along with all annexures is accessible here. These rules are framed under Section 28 of the Act, which in the case of High Courts is the Chief Justice.

The main grounds for challenging the Rules was that they contravened the express provisions of the Right to Information Act, and also went against the letter and spirit of the Act. Some examples of such illegal and arbitrary Rules could be:
  • The Public Authority, in cases where the information requested was not in its jurisdiction, instead of forwarding the RTI application to the concerned authority, as is mandated as per the RTI Act, not just returns the application, but also forfeits the application fee.
  • A separate fee (Rs. 20 per page) is provided for information that concerns the life and liberty of a person. Such differential fee system was never envisaged in the RTI Act.
  • A fee of Rs. 100 is charged for filing appeals to the First Appellate Bodies (even though no such fee is prescribed in the RTI Act, or for appeals to the Central Information Commission under the Rules).
  • In case an applicant asks for information concerning a business contract/proposal/tender document etc, a minimum fee of Rs. 500 is prescribed.

All the above Rules (and many more) are not only against the letter and spirit of the RTI Act, but also are nothing but a means of disincentivizing a common person from accessing information thus infringe an Indian citizen's right to ask for accountability and transparency. A legislation as progressive as the RTI Act is being shackled by anti-transparency rules.

In fact, all over India, the rules framed by Competent Authorities have been under challenge because, unlike the rules framed by the Central and State Governments, these authorities have not really faced the same scrutiny maybe because these authorities are not accountable directly to the public per se.

A bench of Hon'ble Mr Justice AK Sikri and Mr Justice RK Jain presided over the matter and verbally expressed their desire to change the HC RTI rules, to bring them in consonance with the Central RTI Rules. Justice Sikri, in fact, had pushed for amendments to the Delhi High Court RTI Rules during his tenure as the Acting Chief Justice of the Delhi High Court, and similarly promised to take action on the RTI rules of the Punjab and Haryana High Court, as a result of my petition. Thus, the petition was ordered to be treated as a representation before the Rules Committee of the High Court. A copy of the order can be found here.

 I also filed a supplementary representation before the Rules Committee, in addition to my petition (which was ordered to be treated as a representation). This supplementary representation inter alia contains proposed/suggested amendments to the present Rules, a report by CHRI on Delhi High Court's RTI Rules, and the latest order of the Hon'ble Supreme Court, where the Allahabad High Court has agreed to amend its RTI Rules, after they were challenged by the NGO Common Cause. A copy of the supplementary representation is available here.

It is hoped that prompt and effective action would be taken in this regard in the days to come. 

Thursday, January 10, 2013

An Open Letter to the Punjab Haryana High Court Bar Association Regarding Cessation of Festivities due to the Gang Rape Incident

Dear Members of the Punjab and Bar High Court Association,

You all must have received, just as I did, a SMS informing us all that "To express solidarity in mass protest against Delhi gang rape victim-Damini, the HCBA has decided not to celebrate Lohri this year". It set me thinking about how this could be great opportunity to raise some pertinent but forgotten issues. 

I think that while we all are collectively dealing with and deliberating about issues of sexual crimes against women, gender discrimination and the inequality between men and women, maybe we should examine our own body, i.e. the Punjab and Haryana High Court Bar Association (PHHCBA). I thought it might be good idea to think about the position of women lawyers vis-a-vis men lawyers practicing in the PHHC, and the way women seem to be treated generally. 

  • The Lecherous Lawyer Syndrome- Our High Court, like many other male dominated work places, have many suffering from the 'Lecherous Lawyer Syndrome', with advocates working in the High Court making no pretensions of having that vague notion of decency while piercing with their lecherous eyes the bodies of women-- fellow women lawyers or any female bodies in general. Talk to any women lawyer or law interns from law schools all over, who would tell you all about the brazenness of the unabashed manner in which men in black coats "check out" women like prey. Its easy to skirt this one and say that this is a man's thing to do, but its not, and we can really fix this at an individual and institutional level. Maybe a gender sensitisation programme for our bar association is in order. 
  • We don't Follow Vishaka Guidelines - This situation is worsened by the fact that we at the PHHC, followed their legal brethren (usually brethren) and have refused to implement  the Vishakha guidelines by forming Committees for complaining about sexual harassment  in the Courts and law offices. Now this issue of non implementation has reached the SC but we still are blissfully ignorant about the gravity of the situation. Should we not be taking the lead and implementing these guidelines as quickly as possible? Shouldn't we as officers of the Court be more concerned about this? The chalta hai attitude is no longer chalta hai anymore because sexual harassment is a form of sexual violence. 
  • Lack of Gender Represenation in Electoral Office - Last sixty years have produced many many (100s) of Presidents, Vice Presidents, Treasurers and Secretaries of the PHHCBA, however, only 1 of them has been woman [Mrs. (Justice) Daya Chaudhary, President, 1999-2000]. Women lawyers have started getting the token position as Joint Secretaries only recently.  The current PHHCBA Executive Committee has 4 women advocates as members in a committee of 28 members, thus constituting only about one-seventh (14%) of the positions. While we dream and clamour for passing a women's reservations Bill, after granting the same to women in Panchayati Raj Institutions, we don't take any steps so that women are adequately represented in our Bar's decision making body. Maybe its time we get atleast some adequate reservation of seats for women in the PHHCBA executive body (apart from one token "Lady Member" seat) because till it is done we will remain a body which will not represent and push for women concerns. This means that, inter alia, there is no creche, though the demand for it have been on since ages, especially by women advocates (though raising up kids not only a women issue). This is despite the fact that many other High Courts provide creche facilities within court premises.
  • Breaking the Advocates All Boys Club: Law offices and law courts, remain largely an all Boys club, despite a number of women practicing in the PHHC. Sexist comments and jokes which are supposed to pass off as 'friendly banter' is a big affront to the dignity of every women advocate. But since they have careers to build and reputations at stake, it seems most choose to tolerate this indignity, in line with their experiences elsewhere. This too is an issue which cannot really be regulated, and is more about personal values, however, at least the seniors' in the profession and the PHHCBA can take a stand against any sexist conduct in their offices and in Bar itself.        
  • Encouraging Young Women Lawyers: Law school statistics show that women constitute an equal and sometimes a greater percentage of law students graduating each year. But its sad that most women law students on graduation don't end up continuing in the legal profession as litigating lawyers. There are of course many systemic barriers to entry, but as one of the biggest bar associations in this region, we seem to fail in our duty as members of the bar if we fail to create a programme to encourage and support women lawyers just joining the profession. As the numbers of women lawyers increase, we should hopefully see a lot of change happening in the direction of greater gender parity. We must stop treating women lawyers as lesser beings, and looking them with our gender prejudiced minds. We, the men, must remember what was said about a century back: "Men have accused the woman lawyer of being a failure ... because she has not grown rich in the practice of law, and that in the short space of twenty years. The man's standards again -- the acquisition of wealth and power. I would say to these accusers the aim of the woman lawyer is not so much the acquisition of money as to make an impression in the laws of this country as will benefit the whole race.... -- Attorney Mary Lilly, shortly before World War I"

The above views are of a lawyer who happens to be a man, hence I may not know other issues relevant to this situation. Thus, I call upon the more senior members of the Bar, especially the women members to deliberate and take forward this issue.

Maybe this Lohri will bring the required warmth and empathy we need to engage with issues of women lawyers.
   

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Women and Political Power in India: Shocking Statistics

I created this infographic using shocking statistics relating to Women and Political Decision Making in India. It shows the gross under-representation of women at the helm of affairs. Do check it out and feel free to use it!