Thursday, September 13, 2012

Only SC judges, HC CJs can head info panels, rules apex court

The Supreme Court on Thursday ruled that “only” serving and retired judges of the apex court and chief justices of state high courts can head the Central and State Information Commissions.
Directing the Centre to amend the RTI Act in this regard, the court stated that the functions of the Chief Information Commissioner and Information Commissioners can be “better performed by a legally qualified and trained mind possessing the requisite experience”.
The bench of Justices A K Patnaik and Swatanter Kumar said Information Commissions are “judicial tribunals” and need to be manned by a person of judicial mind, expertise and experience in that field. It noted that they were “expected to undertake an adjudicatory process involving critical legal questions and niceties of law”, including conflicts between the right to privacy and right to information.
“We are of the considered view that the competent authority (DoPT) should prefer a person who is or has been a Judge of the high court for appointment as Information Commissioners. The Chief Information Commissioner at the Centre or state level shall only be a person who is or has been a Chief Justice of the High Court or a Judge of the Supreme Court of India,” said the court.
At present, the RTI Act states that the Chief Information Commissioner and Information Commissioners must be persons of eminence in public life with wide knowledge and experience in law, science and technology, social service, management, journalism, mass media or administration and governance.
The Supreme Court’s order is bound to change the composition of the Information Commissions, which till date comprised people mostly from administrative background. Currently, none of the eight members of the Central Information Commission, including the Chief Information Commissioner, have judicial background.
“The Information Commissions at the respective levels shall henceforth work in benches of two members each — one of them being a judicial member, while the other an expert member. The judicial member should be a person possessing a degree in law, having a judicially trained mind and experience in performing judicial functions,” ruled the apex court.
It said that lawyers with work experience of over 20 years will also be eligible for appointment as a member and all such decisions will be taken after consultations with the CJI and Chief Justice of the respective high courts.
The court passed the order on a PIL challenging the provisions of the Right to Information Act, 2005 which enumerate the qualifications needed for appointment as members to the commissions.
“The requirement of legal person in a quasi-judicial body has been internationally recognised. We have already referred, amongst others, to the relevant provisions of the respective Information Acts of the USA, UK and Canada,” the bench said in its 107-page order.
The Supreme Court directed the government to frame the new practice and procedure related rules within six months, adding that the selection process should commence at least three months prior to the occurrence of vacancy.
“Giving effect to the above scheme would not only further the cause of the Act but would attain greater efficiency, and accuracy in the decision-making process, which in turn would serve the larger public purpose. It shall also ensure greater and more effective access to information, which would result in making the invocation of right to information more objective and meaningful,” said the court.

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