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Controversy over judges' asset disclosure forces Indian Supreme Court to place information online

Prashant Bhushan [Convenor, Campaign for Judicial Accountability and Reforms]: "The issue of asset disclosure of judges in India arose out of a Right to Information Application filed by one Subhash Agarwal with the Supreme Court seeking to know if judges of the High Courts and the Supreme Court were complying with the 1997 "Code of Conduct" adopted at the Chief Justices Conference, which required judges to disclose their assets in confidence to their Chief Justices. The Public Information officer of the Supreme Court (endorsed by the Chief Justice) responded by saying that this information does not exist in the Supreme Court registry.

In the appeal before the Central Information Commission it transpired that the Supreme Court was making a distinction between information with the Chief Justices office and that of the Supreme Court. The CIC rejected this distinction and directed the infromation officer of the Court to obtain this information from the Chief Justices office and provide it to the RTI applicant. This prompted the Supreme Court to file a writ petition in the Delhi High Court to challenge the CIC order. Though the CIC had merely directed release of the information about whether judges were disclosing their assets to the Chief Justice, the Supreme Court argued that this would pave the way for people seeking actual asset disclosures under the RTI Act. They claimed that asset disclosure was exempted under the RTI Act on the basis that this information was disclosed by judges to the Chief Justice under a "fiduciary relationship" and that this was "personal information having no relationship to public interest and would cause an unwarranted invasion of the privacy" of judges. The Court further claimed that the Chief Justice was not a "Public Authority" amenable to RTI requests under the RTI Act.

While the High Court heard submissions in the matter and had reserved judgment, the issue became a major controversy after the government introduced a bill in Parliament providing for asset disclosure of judges, but with a clause which said that the asset disclosure would remain hidden from the people and that judges would not be made liable for any action on the basis of their disclosure. This led to a furor in Parliamant and MPs cutting across party lines unanimously condemned this clause, forcing the government to withdraw the bill.

Soon thereafter, a couple of High Court judges publicly declared their assets while publicly dissociating themselves from the Chief Justice of India's stand that asset disclosure would lead to harassment of judges at the hands of disgruntled litigants. Many former judges and senior jurists also publicly aired their views in favour of public declaration of judges' assets. The issue snowballed into a major public controversy with the media almost unanimously ranged against the Chief Justice's view. Ultimately the Chief Justice had to yield to unrelenting public pressure and the Supreme Court announced that the asset declarations of the judges would be put up on the website.

This issue also caught the pubic and media imagination because it was associated with the RTI Act which has become one of the most popular pieces of legislation of recent times. The Campaign for Judicial Accountability and Reforms took up this campaign although we have stated that our principal demands remain:

1, Setting up of independent and credible institutions for the appointment of judges and for entertaining complaints against them.

2. Overruling of the Veeraswami judgement which prohibits the criminal investigation of judges without the written permission of the Chief Justice of India.

3. The amendment of the Contempt of Courts Act by removing "scandalising and lowering the authority of the Court" from the definition of Criminal contempt.

4. The full application of the RTI Act to the judiciary which is being thwarted by self serving rules framed by the High Courts and self serving judgements which have effectively stonewalled information about the adminstrative functioning of the judiciary.
Meanwhile, the public controversy about judges' asset disclosure has brought the issue of Judicial Accountability into public consciousness and onto the agenda of Parliament. That is the salutary contribution of this controversy."

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