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.